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INTERVIEW: Africa may be losing 20 million MT of maize annually to Armyworm- Dr Oikeh

African Agricultural technology Foundation (AATF) Project Manager TELA Maize Project, Dr. Sylvester Oikeh in this interview at the National Agricultural Extension Research Liason Services (NAERLS), Zaria, Nigeria, opens up on dangers of the Fall Armyworm pest to especially maize crop, successes recorded in curtailing it in other countries and why Nigeria needs to act fast to prevent impending food shortages that might affect half of Africa’s population.
Tell us what you are here for?
There is a problem of drought which we are familiar with. There is a problem of insect pest as well. What normally happens when there is drought, the insect attack also increases.
And so Africa as a continent is regarded as a drought prone continent because 3 out of the global drought events have taken place in Africa. Then we also have the problem of insect pests. The insect called stem borer. It has been there with us, and we have been managing it. But unfortunately, a new pest came out in 2016 and  it called Fall Armyworm. It is devastating maize all over Africa.
For example, within a year of arriving in Africa from America, it devastated maize with the tune of 2.6 to almost six billion dollars of maize in 12 countries.
In Nigeria the study by FAO showed that with 2016 to 2017, $270 million dollars of food crop was consumed in Abia, Ekiti , Oyo and Ondo  states.
Imagine 270 million dollars of crops consumed by this pest within a year. So people are saying if Africa doesn’t take action, Africa is going to lose 20 million metric tonnes of maize, equivalent to feed 100 million people. This means half of our population will suffer starvation and food deficiency. Knowing how important maize is in Africa, it is a big threat on food security.
Now that we all know it is a big threat, do we fold our arms and start importing food or look for solution to this problem. And in AATF we have chosen to get the solution to help our farmers.
So in getting that solution, we have found maize variety that has been genetically modified to have an inbuilt protection against this pest. So the project I am coordinating here is a TELA Maize Project. It is a coordination of public private partnership project that is addressing the problem of  developing maize  that is tolerant to drought and at the same time has protection against the pest called Fall Armyworm. So that when farmers plant these seeds, they have good crop better than what they get before and if at all the pest comes in, because the crop has inbuilt protection, it will no longer devastate the crop.
We have been running the project for more than seven years in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa and Nigeria has just joined.
What are you trying to address with your project?
We are trying to address the problem of drought, because when there is no rain, maize is one of the most sensitive crops to drought. Anyone who grows maize, the moment there is no rain, the crops get devastated if drought comes when the maize is about to flower.
We also realized that this pest Fall Armyworm that came in 2016 is even worse than other pests and Africa is losing. We said let’s look for solution because climate change is affecting our maize production.
There is a lot of negative talk about genetic engineering, how safe is your product?
The issue of safety of crops when it comes to genetic engineering is always occurring, but the funniest thing is that the debate is only in Africa. Not even in all of Africa. South Africa has been eating genetic modified crops since 20 years ago, Including maize. And since then, has the population of South Africa decreased? No. If it was so, the population will have gone down. Brazil and America have been growing GM crops.
GM crops is a new way to grow crops, especially crops like maize where this pest we mentioned can be curtailed.
In fact, the Fall Armyworm I talked about has been existing in America. And how have they been controlling it. They are managing it using genetically engineered maize.
They found out that the soil micro organism found to be safe for human and animals are extracted and analyzed ( Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) ) and use it before to spray their vegetable crops. So scientist says instead of spraying which takes time, considering the volume of maize you grow, if you have to do that every year, it is going to be expensive for the farmer and they later decided to put it inside the maize crop through genetic engineering and it will look similar to the other maize plant. Except for the protection against that insect. That is the difference.
If I show you a GM maize, and those without it, you will not know the difference. The only time you get to know the difference is when planted where one is infested with pest and the other is not.
This is just a form of breeding devices by scientist discovered to make farming better for farmers.
How soon are going to get this maize in large scale in Nigeria?
Like I said, Nigeria  just joined the partnership in April and right now we have come to develop the site where we want to do the testing.
The testing takes one or two years and also depends on the government’s regulatory agencies. This product is highly regulated.
We are opening up a site in Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), where we are going to put state of the art irrigation facility so that we test this product to see if they could work in our environment,  and if they are drought tolerant.  Do they protect against insect such as the Fall Armyworm, like we have seen it in other countries?
Then we  will run this test for two years and submit the results with safety data, as to whether they are safe for consumption.
We will submit the result to the National Biosafety Authority in Abuja and they will look at the submission we made and then they give us approval.
It will go through the process of verification, certification for farmers to grow and seed companies for multiplication.
Famers lament importation of maize and the companies that manufacture said it’s because they famers sell substandard maize. How will your product help?
Every country has put policy to safeguard their farmers. I don’t see why Nigeria shouldn’t provide policy to safeguard our famers.
When you drive across, as we were coming to Kaduna, we see maize right left and center. We have a huge potentials here. But most of the maize I saw are open pollinated maize. They are not hybrid maize. The country where I came from, about 80 per cent of what they grow is hybrid. The reverse is the case here in Nigeria. With the open pollinated varieties take 75 per cent and hybrid only  25.
What I will say is that the government should have a policy to discourage importation of maize into the country and encourage farmers to adopt hybrid maize.
Some of the maize brought in are hybrid maize, but they are genetically modified maize. The  government should not just fold hands and allow dumping of every kind of crops and maize in the country. In all other countries, you have regulations and policies guiding them.
Here in Nigeria, the farmers are not getting enough because the seed companies are not motivated.  We have seen most of what they call hybrids compared to our own TELA Maize and they are more or less like OPVs.
We must have a regulations that help to guide what seed companies are promoting to our farmers and also put a policy to discourage maize importation into the country to encourage farmers to grow.
How can the Fall  Armyworm be managed?
It came into the country in 2016. And study by FAO shows that within a year, $270  million dollars worth of maize and other crops was lost in four states.
One bad thing about the pest is that, it produces very  prolific in laying eggs and hatching. Within a night, we are told that it covers hundreds of kilometers.
To manage it, what we advocate is integrated pest management. Because there is no single silver bullet that can solve it. One of the components to solve it is using the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Other countries like South Africa have adopted this for the past 20 years.
This TELA Maize gives protection against this pest. What I am saying is that adopting the BT TELA Maize gives a single solution to this.
If you cannot afford this, and you keep spraying with chemicals which are dangerous for health and goes through water.
We have brought the best technology for farmers, but government should provide an enabling environment and put the right policies in place to enable farmers to grow in-house rather than every time we are exporting food into the country.
What do we stand to lose as a country if we don’t use TELA Maize?
For example in the study that was carried out, we were told that in just 12  countries in Africa, we lost 2.6billion dollars.
The countries that grows more maize in Africa  is Nigeria and Tanzania.
You can imagine if these two countries are losing $2.6billion per annum that is huge money.
We are being told that if Africa doesn’t take action, it is going to be losing 20 million tonnes of maize annually, which equivalent to feeding 100 million people if we don’t take action. That is to tell you the impact of this pest.
The dangers are what I have told you above. We need government’s support.

About Edwin

Edwin is an agriculture enthusiast who believes in the potency of agriculture in driving economic growth in developing countries. He also believes in the use of biotechnology to advance agriculture in order to fight hunger and poverty. Edwin believes in the power of the media to bridge the gap between policy makers, sector actors and the farmers, especially those in the rural areas.

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