New maize variety gives farmers hope against deadly armyworm

Armyworm feeding on farmer's maize crop. (Photo: Courtesy)

Scientists have urged the government to approve genetically modified maize after trials in Uganda showed resistance to fall armyworm invasion.

Dr Sylvester Oikeh, Project Manager of Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) that is carrying out Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) maize trials in Kasese, said the genetically modified variety was resistant to the pest that has decimated maize farms across the border.

“The potential of the Bt gene to control fall armyworm is quite evident in the Bt maize trials going on in Uganda and this is quite exciting for our farmers,” said Oikeh.

“On a scale of 1 - 9, the damage was 3 on Bt and 6 on local checks,” said Dr Michael Otim, Senior Research Scientist and Crop Entomologist at National Crops Resources Research Institute.

Following the success, scientists have petitioned the government to fast track the Biosafety Bill.

“The development in Uganda should provide incentive for government to pass the Biosafety Bill,” said Otim, adding that the bill will set the stage for availing the maize variety to farmers in the country.

“Every effort to approve Bt maize in East Africa including Kenya will give farmers some protection against this new pest,” Oikeh said.

Though Kenya and Uganda have conducted numerous tests on Bt maize, they are yet to commercialise it due to policy requirements.

According to Dr Murenga Mwimali, a maize breeder at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, fall armyworm is capable of destroying an entire maize field in a couple of days.

Dr Anani Bruce, an entomologist at CIMMYT in Nairobi says that although chemical sprays  control the pest, researchers insist that Bt maize is a sure solution against fall armyworm invasion.

Spread fast

Fall armyworms are migratory and spread fast across borders.

The pest is mostly associated with the America.

“This is a new threat in Southern Africa and we are very concerned with the emergence, intensity and spread of the pest. It is only a matter of time before most of the region will be affected,” said David Phiri, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Sub-regional Coordinator for Southern Africa at a meeting convened in February in Harare to discuss the invasion.

FAO last month issued an alert on fall armyworm outbreak in Southern Africa. According to the UN agency, the pest destroyed more than 17, 000 hectares of maize fields in Malawi, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Average maize yield for small holder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at between 1.2 and 1.5 tons per hectare under good agronomy practice.

Kenya is conducting fall armyworm surveillance at the Kenya-Uganda border though scientists believe to they have spotted it in parts of Central and Western.

The Standard
Celebrate Easter in style with our KES999 annual offer