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Solutions to counter Agriculture Faults that threaten the backbone of African economies

Solutions to counter poor rainfall and crop-damaging pests that threaten the backbone of African economies

 According to the UN, over 17 million people in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda have reached emergency food insecurity levels

Reporting this month in Nairobi, an increasing number of African countries are facing food insecurity due to:

– delayed and insufficient rainfall

– crop damaging pests such as the ongoing outbreak of the fall armyworm, which caused the most severe maize crisis in the last decade.

Experts warn that with more erratic weather patterns and vital crops such as maize being unable to resist ‘fall armyworm’ infestation, there “will not be enough food on the table.”

Raising the alarm on these two issues, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) 2017 World Food Day theme is “Change the future of migration. Invest in food security and rural development.”

Pests Know No Borders

Speaking to IPS, Hilda Mukui, an agriculturalist and conservationist in Kenya, warned that with Maize being such an important food crop in many African countries, “the inability of local varieties to withstand the growing threats from the fall armyworm which can destroy an entire crop in a matter of weeks raises significant concerns.”

Mukui pointed out that due to its migratory nature, “the pest can move across borders as is the case in Kenya where the fall armyworm migrated from Uganda and has so far been spotted in Kenya’s nine counties in Western, Rift Valley and parts of the Coastal agricultural areas.”

While issuing warnings over the fall armyworm, FAO expressed concerns that most countries are ill-prepared to handle the threat.

Sad Scenario

“It is only a matter of time before most of the region will be affected,” said

David Phiri, FAO Sub-Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa. “This is a new threat in Southern Africa and we are very concerned with the emergence, intensity and spread of the pest.”

The UN agency has confirmed that the pest has laid waste over 17,000 hectares of maize fields in Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. An estimated 330,000 hectares have been destroyed across the African continent.

Explaining the magnitude of this destruction, Dr George Keya, the national coordinator of the of the Arid and Semi-arid lands Agricultural Productivity Research Project, told IPS that “the average maize yield for small scale farmers in many African countries is between 1.2 and 1.5 tons per hectare.”

Africa’s largest producers of maize – Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa – are all grappling with the fall armyworm outbreak.

While the ‘maize stalk borer’ or the ‘African armyworm’ – which is different from the fall armyworm – cost farmers at least 25 million dollars annually in missed produce, the concern is that additional threats from the vicious Fall Armyworms will cripple maize production.

Fighting Back

Responding to the concern, the government of Nigeria and FAO signed in September 2017 a Technical Cooperation Project (TCP) agreement as part of a concerted joint effort to manage the spread of the fall armyworm across the country.

The destruction of maize has huge ramification, reverberating throughout African economies. As an example, sectors such as the poultry industry which relies heavily on maize to produce poultry feed, was badly affected.

Scientists are now pushing African governments to embrace biotechnology to address the many threats that are currently facing the agricultural sector and leading to the alarming food insecurity.

An example, a genetically modified variety of maize – Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) – has shown significant resistance to the fall armyworm. This is according to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

Based on results from the Bt maize trials in Uganda, scientists are convinced that here may lie the solution to the fall armyworm.

Although chemical sprays can control the pest, scientists believe that the Bt maize “is the most effective solution to the armyworm menace.”

Experts reveal that the Bt maize has been genetically modified to produce Bt protein, an insecticide that kills certain pests.

Other African countries are now following the lead, and have approved field testing of genetically modified crops to achieve food security using scientific innovations.

The public-private crop breeding initiative to assist farmers in managing the risk of drought and stem borers across Africa – Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) – is currently undertaking Bt maize trials in Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, and recently concluded trials in South Africa to find a solution to the fall armyworm invasion.

The results speak for themselves:

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation confirms “that on a scale of one to nine, based on the Bt maize trials in Uganda, the damage from the armyworm was three for the Bt genetically modified variety and six on the local checks or the popularly grown varieties.”

Similarly, Bt maize trials in Mozambique have shown that “on a scale of one to nine, the damage was on 1.5 on Bt maize and seven on popularly grown varieties.”

These results,” Mukui explains, “are very promising and it is important that African countries review their biosafety rules and regulations so that science can rescue farmers from the many threats facing the agricultural sector.”