Ugandan maize trial proves successful in controlling the armyworm but farmers cannot yet access the variety due to regulatory roadblocks
The continuing spread of invasive leaf-eating caterpillars known as Fall Armyworms to many parts of the country have left many farmers perplexed and worried especially because the worms have shown unique ability to resist commonly-used pesticides.
First confirmed by researchers at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) about a month ago, the caterpillars are reported to have invaded at least 16 districts early this year which predominantly grow maize.
However, new reports indicate that the worms are spreading rapidly and are causing damage to tender crops that have just been planted. The rate of spread and the speed of destruction, compared to ordinary worms like the maize stem borer has puzzled many farmers that have been affected.
Perhaps as a sign of the seriousness of the problem, The Sunrise has reliably learnt that the Kenyan government has earmarked Kshs100m, (Approximately Ushs3.5bn), in surveillance and control measures aimed at stopping the spread of the caterpillars over to Kenya from Uganda.
The arrival of the highly destructive pests represents a crushing blow to many people’s efforts to grow food and thereby stem the effects of food shortages in households and communities. The pests could also deal a blow to the government’s efforts to support farmers’ efforts through distribution of seeds such as maize, beans and cassava. The government announced recently that it had ear-marked some Ushs54bn toward purchase of seeds for distribution to farmers this season.
Gideon Ntabose, the Secretary for Production in Kasese district told The Sunrise that farmers and political leaders in the district are very worried about the increased spread of the caterpillars.
“We are still lucky that the caterpillars were mostly confined in the irrigation scheme. If it spreads to other farms outside the scheme, it may be difficult to manage. Moreover, it may be difficult to ensure that all farmers spray the expensive chemicals which are quite costly,” said Ntabose.
Ntabose added that they had identified one chemical known as Chlobeson Emamectin Benzoate 5, as an effective remedy to the pest. “The commonly used pesticides such as Rocket, Acelemectin all failed to control the pest.”
Paul Kyabaggu, the Managing Director of Bukoola Chemicals Ltd told The Sunrise that his company also has another chemical known as Dudu Fenos that can control the pest. He said a farmer needs half a litre of the chemical to spray an acre. Kyabaggu’s claims are yet to be verified by experts, and the general public may have to move with caution especially regarding claims of efficacy by manufacturers such as Bukoola as they could be interpreted as marketeering.
NARO scientists however say that they have developed a new maize variety using modern biotechnology tools which has shown unique ability to resist the pest. Although not originally intended to test the new fall armyworm, the BT maize that was planted last season in Kasese managed to withstand the invasion of the pests.
The new pest-tolerant maize variety currently on trial in Kasese and in Kenya, were developed under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Howard Buffet Foundation.
Stephen Ochen, a maize breeder with NARO said: “The ultimate solution to these pests is to breed for resistance. Fortunately, we have a product that has shown to be effective in the control of the pest. It’s up to policy makers to pass the bill allowing farmers to access these products. Some chemicals may work but many farmers cannot afford them.”
Dr Sylvester Oikeh, the Project Manager WEMA confirmed the surprising results of variety against the fall armyworm. He told The Sunrise in an email conversation that: “A month ago, a confined Bt maize trial by WEMA in Uganda was attacked by fall armyworm. The attack was unexpected given the trial was testing resistance on stem borer attack. Coincidentally, the WEMA confined field trials in Uganda indicated the potential of the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene to control the fall armyworms,”
Dr. Oikeh used preliminary results of the trial to appeal to policy makers in the region to remove roadblocks to the adoption of improved crop varieties that have been produced through modern biotechnology means.
“It’s now an opportunity for policy makers and scientists to take advantage of these preliminary findings to secure food security for the people by adopting BT maize variety,” said Oikeh.
Dr. Oikeh observed that many countries in the region are paying a very high price through importing food, by delaying to adopt technologies that have the potential to greatly improve output by increasing crops’ ability to stand against pests and environmental stresses.
He cited the 80 billion Kenyan shillings (Approx. Ushs2.7bn) that the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta spent to import food last year, as money that would have been saved for other purposes had the country removed the ban that was imposed on importation of products of biotechnology. Coincidentally, the millions that Kenya spent on importing maize is equivalent to the financial cost the country incurred due to the impact of pest damage on the crop.
Oikeh expressed frustration that research activities aimed at improving food security in hunger prone Sub-Saharan Africa, are being blocked by politicians.
Despite being a government-sponsored bill, Uganda’s Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, has remained a mere talking point even as hundreds of people died from hunger. The government also announced major cuts on other departments in order to buy food for an estimated 3.5m people who faced starvation.