As armyworms strike, the GMO debate continues

None of the East African Community (EAC) countries has escaped the fall armyworm invasion as the caterpillar continues on its destructive march on the continent. As of May 2017, about 420,000 hectares of the maize crop in Eastern and Southern Africa had been destroyed by the worm.

None of the East African Community (EAC) countries has escaped the fall armyworm invasion as the caterpillar continues on its destructive march on the continent. As of May 2017, about 420,000 hectares of the maize crop in Eastern and Southern Africa had been destroyed by the worm.

Few countries effectively manage to deal with it.

And though Rwanda has somewhat managed the problem with pesticides, it was not before some 15,300 hectares of the crop had been destroyed.

Still, this offers some modicum of hope that pesticides could still work. Otherwise, despite sustained pesticide use, the worm continues on the rampage in other countries in the region and on the continent.

It is acknowledged that there is no single-bullet solution, with other possible answers ranging from use of biological agents such as parasites to infectiously kill the worm, to genetically engineered crops the caterpillars find difficult to attack.

While countries such as the US use genetically modified crops mixing it with other methods to control the fall armyworm, many in EAC are strongly opposed to the use of GMOs. This is despite genetically modified maize showing some promise in local trials.

A strain developed in Uganda, for instance, already demonstrates resistance to the fall armyworm compared with non-transgenic maize materials. However, further field trials are required to confirm its efficacy. The National Biosafety Bill 2017 that has just been passed by the country’s Parliament now brings it within grasp of Uganda’s farmers to have access to genetically engineered maize and other products.

This is not to say such maize will be easily acceptable elsewhere in the region. Rwanda, among others, remains categorical about possible influx of genetically modified crops. The Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources has previously been quoted speaking against GMO crop imports, particularly maize and bananas, until Rwanda’s biosafety standards are in place and acceptable to all parties in the country.

Indeed, acceptability is sacrosanct and must be respected. This characterises the official position as currently obtains in the other EAC countries, despite Uganda and Kenya being just shy of legally allowing GM products.

Yet, as the debate continues, there remains the not so simple argument that it has taken some form of genetic modification through human agricultural evolution to place food crops on the table in their present palatable form, making it a matter of perception whether GMO products should be viewed as necessarily harmful or simply unacceptable because of technological manipulation. This is not to say the products should not satisfy stringent standards on the environment or a healthy palate.

This line of argument maintains that if they may offer a solution, they ought to be considered along with bio-pesticides and biological agents such as egg and larval parasitoids being used to manage the fall armyworm in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Honduras in South America.

The stakes require such a consideration. Maize remains a staple food for more than 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa where the worm devastation has added to the severe drought caused by the 2015/2016 El Nino weather phenomenon we have just emerged from. And though the area already destroyed may appear a mere fraction – around 1.2 per cent – of the about 35 million hectares under cultivation in sub-Saharan Africa, the threat of starvation it poses has had the world scrambling to find a viable solution.

One estimate by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International in April had projected the damage the fall armyworm (FAW) could cause at about $3 billion by the end of the first quarter in 2018. That’s a lot of staple food’s worth.

The FAW is known to feed on more than 90 plant species that include grass family crops such as maize, millet, sorghum, rice and wheat, as well as various pasture grass varieties, not to mention legumes among others. The peril it poses if left unchecked is, therefore, quite considerable in a continent already stressed by other hunger threatening challenges ranging from climate change to conflict.

Other dollar estimates, pegging it on the amount Brazil spends to contain the worm, put it at $600 million annually to keep the caterpillar in check in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The figures quantifying possible damage and cost of countering the threat derive from a series of meetings in the region and beyond, particularly under the aegis of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, since the fall armyworm was detected in Nigeria in January 2016.

This has necessarily placed all possible options on the table.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.