GM Maize: Possible Solution to Fall Army Worms in Malawi
Malawi’s population is about 20 million. Most of these people live in rural areas, and 97 percent of them are farmers that grow maize.
Despite maize being a staple food in Malawi, this crop is being affected by different problems, including the fall armyworm, which contributes to 70 percent of crop loss in maize production.
Any decline in maize production in Malawi is a recipe for hunger in this agro-based economy.
The fall army worm is resistant to most pesticides. So, can genetic modification be the answer? I set out to find out how effective is the genetically modified maize variety that researchers at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) would like to study in addressing the problem.
Gilbert Muja is a farmer from Kuluya village in Dedza district, central Malawi. She is a mother of three. She narrates how severe the damage caused by the fall armyworm was in her maize field last season.
"Fall army worms attacked my maize field. I was expecting to harvest over 70 bags of 50 kgs each, but l harvested only 35 bags. This has affected me quite a lot. I do not have enough food, not even some to sell. My plans to construct a house after selling the maize have been compromised.
"Fall army worms are compromising our crop production; they [researchers] should develop a new variety of maize that is resistant to fall army worms. This will help our crops to survive the attack," says Muja.
Fall army worms are some of the most devastating pests in maize production. They can cause damage of up to 97 percent if not controlled.
They first appeared in the country between 2016 and 2017. Since then, they have caused a lot of headaches among farmers. It is only in the last two to three seasons that some pesticides have been made available on the market.
The concern among farmers, though, is that these chemicals are expensive, costing K5500 for a small bottle and K9000 a bigger bottle.
Pyton Time is a farmer from Mpalale village in Dedza. He tells us that when fall armyworms attacked his maize field, his crop production dropped to a meager 23 bags.
"These pests are dangerous; they damage the leaves of the crop which affects crop production and contribute to hunger. We are pleading with the authorities to develop a maize seed variety that is resistant to fall army worms...this will help us as farmers. Currently we struggle to buy chemicals because we are poor; we cannot afford," says Time.
District Crops Protection officer for Dedza John Malunga says this year fall army worms have affected 475 hectares of maize fields in the district, and over 3237 households have been affected.
He says the current option is to encourage farmers to use physical, cultural and biological methods to control the pests since chemicals are expensive.
Maize has just too many problems affecting it! Karonga, a northern region district in Malawi, was this year affected not just by fall army worms but drought too.
Edmand Mwafuriwa from Mwambuli village in Karonga is one of the affected farmers in the district.
"I planted three acres of maize this year. Almost two- and-a-half acres were destroyed by fall army worms. Unfortunately, the remaining five acres were destroyed by drought. I’ve failed to harvest enough this year and I am badly affected.
“l planned to construct houses for rent after selling the maize but my dreams have been shuttered as l did not harvest enough maize for food and for sale," says Mwafuriwa.
District Crops Officer for Karonga Silence Muwanje says 2693 hectares of maize fields have this year been affected by fall army worms and 3614 farming households have been affected.
The situation in Karonga also calls for the authorities to review the idea of adopting drought resistant or water efficient maize crop varieties.
Researcher and scientist Dr Kingdom Kwapata who is based at LUANAR’s Bunda College says most drought resistant maize crop varieties are genetically modified but currently Malawi has not adopted any of such varieties.
"In Malawi, we have not introduced GM maize. There is a process that is followed to introduce such varieties. There is a need for strong political will for the country to adopt GM maize that is resistant to drought and fall army worm, observes Dr Kwapata.
The National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST), with support from African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), has been supporting research and innovation for genetically modified crops in Malawi.
NCST is an organisation that focuses on science, research and technology that have social economic benefits for the country.
Concerned with the devastating effects of fall army worms, NCST brought to the attention of scientists the problem and encouraged them to find a solution.
Lyson Kampira is an official responsible for agriculture science at NCST.
"When we find such technologies, we bring them to the attention of scientists and researchers in the country who can try them at national level. When results generated from their trials are shared, a decision is made on whether to adopt such technologies or not,” adds Kampira.
In response, LUANAR researchers have come up with a project that will find maize varieties resistant to fall army worms.
Senior lecturer at LUANAR Dr Abel Sefasi says they have embarked on research on the best maize that is resistant to fall army worms and this research will have a positive impact for the country to achieve the 2063 development agenda.
He says results of the study have been submitted to the Biosafety Registrar for assessment.
According to Dr Sefasi, once approved, after 90 days, they will start experiments in enclosed fields. After field trials, they will submit a final application to the Agriculture Technology Clearing Committee after which farmers in Malawi will start planting GM maize without worrying about fall army worms.
"We are following the regulations of this country; we have submitted an application to the biosafety registrar. They will look at what is contained therein, mainly safety issues. We are positive that it will be cleared because it has been proved to be safe in other laboratory tests elsewhere," says Dr Sefasi.
National Biosafety Registrar under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change Lilian Chimphepo acknowledges receipt of the application from Bunda College scientists regarding genetically modified maize, saying they will evaluate if it is safe to the environment and consumption for people and livestock.
The technology was developed elsewhere and has proved to be effective in other countries like Mozambique, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Kenya.
Agriculture expert Horace Phiri says fall army worms are devastating and there is a need to support the current research for GM maize varieties as a solution to the outbreak.
"The majority of farmers in Malawi are resource-constrained and any solution that will come in the form of genetically modified seed will help them avoid spending money on chemicals. So, this research is welcome. l hope we can get the results as soon as possible and the technology cleared for use in the country," says Phiri.
Meanwhile, cotton is the only GM crop that was adopted in Malawi in 2019 and farmers are now growing it on a national scale.
For most of the cotton farmers, their production has increased to over 1000 kilograms per hectare from about 400 kilograms per hectare.
Is this not reason enough for Malawi to try more genetically modified crops to address challenges that Malawian farmers are facing?
Perhaps it is time for Malawi to start taking advantage of genetic modification technologies available on the market in such critical crops as cowpea, maize and banana since they were tried and proved to be good in many other countries.
Where safety standards are guaranteed, officials have no reason to shun approval of more GM products in Malawi. After all, since 1996 over 70 countries in the world have either planted or imported biotech crops, according to the International Services for The Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications with no report of negative effects. Malawi should not lag behind.
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