The recent appearance of the fall armyworm, an insect-pest that causes damage to more than 80 crop species in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, poses a serious challenge and significant risk to the region’s food security.
In a recent interview, Dr B.M. Prasanna, director of the Global Maize Program, CIMMYT and the CGIAR Research Program on MAIZE, who is working at the forefront of CGIAR’s response, highlights the potential impact of the pest and how CGIAR researchers are contributing to a quick and coordinated response across the region.
Farmers Nuri Bekele, Tefera Tamirat & Melaka Bekele harvest drought tolerant maize in Ethiopia. Photo: P. Lowe/CIMMYT
Marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) is helping maize breeders develop higher yielding and drought-tolerant improved varieties faster than ever before, according to a recent study from scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center(CIMMYT).
“With conventional breeding, it often takes up to 7-8 years for varieties to reach farmers,” said Yoseph Beyene, a CIMMYT maize breeder working with the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) and one of the authors of the study. “With MARS, those varieties take only 5 years to reach farmers, and display greater genetic gain, even under drought conditions”
Nontoko Mgudlwa, a smallholder farmer who planted TELA maize for the first time since its release in South Africa. Photo: B.Wawa/CIMMYT
Smallholder farmers in South Africa can now access and grow new maize varieties with transgenic resistance to stem borers, the most damaging insect pest of maize.
Partners in Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) – a public-private crop breeding initiative that helps farmers manage the risk of drought and stem borers infestation in Africa –developed the genetically modified maize seed branded as “TELA” that has been released and licensed to seed companies in South Africa at royalty-free to sell to farmers at an affordable cost.
TELA – derived from a Latin word Tutela meaning “protection” – contains a gene from Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) that helps the maize to resist damage from major stem borers to give farmers better yield. Five seed companies – Capstone, Jermat, Monsanto, SeedCo and Klein Karoo – are marketing the seed to smallholders.
By Brenda Wawa
Maize plants damaged by fall armyworm in a farmer’s field in southern Malawi in Balaka District. CIMMYT/Christian Thierfelder.
Smallholder farmers in eastern and southern Africa are facing a new threat as a plague of intrepid fall armyworms creeps across the region, so far damaging an estimated 287,000 hectares of maize.
Since mid-2016, scientists with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and national agricultural research partners have been monitoring reports of sightings of the fall armyworm in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Surveys conducted in 2016 in farmers’ fields confirmed the pest is present in Kenya. The threat of the pest spreading into other eastern Africa countries is a significant risk since the region has similar planting seasons.