Mark Edge, Director of Collaborations for Developing Countries at Monsanto, talks about WEMA, the initiative that uses Bt maize to eradicate a harmful pest and help smallholder farmers in Africa.
My work at Monsanto over the years has offered me many new challenges – lately I’m working with a team on the complex issue of helping smallholder farmers in Africa get better seed to help them manage the threats to their maize crops.
The WEMA collaboration
In 2008, we entered into a public-private partnership to develop Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.
WEMA is a collaborative partnership that strives to improve food security and livelihoods among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa by developing drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize that is adapted to their conditions. Monsanto has provided the royalty-free use of technologies for these traits, so that small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa can access the newest technology in hybrid maize.
The Fall Armyworm problem
The insect-resistance trait has become increasingly important because of the destructive Fall Armyworm pest. First identified in 2016 in Africa, it has rapidly advanced across the continent making a devastating impact on maize production. With no effective natural predators, this pest rapidly reproduces and causes significant crop damage, reducing the yields needed to meet a growing demand for food, fuel and fibre.
While the Fall Armyworm is commonly found in the US and is a prominent pest in Brazil, it is new to Africa. In the US and Brazil, it is mostly controlled with genetically modified (GM) maize together with other integrated pest management practices. Unfortunately, in most of Africa, they don’t yet have approvals for GM maize and their options to control the pest are mostly limited to a few pesticides which often don’t work well.
The Fall Armyworm has now hurt maize yields – a staple food for over 300 million people – in over 30 African countries. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa rely heavily on maize and produce it for direct consumption.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that can be used to control insects and has been used as a biological foliar spray by organic farmers to control caterpillars such as Fall Armyworm.
Bt maize was introduced over 20 years ago in the US, and has been used in South Africa, South America, Asia and a few countries in Europe for more than 10 years. However, Bt as an applied biological control has been around for over 50 years, and has been used around the world by farmers and gardeners as an insect control product.
To promote understanding and acceptance of GM maize that could benefit many farmers, Monsanto collaborates with WEMA to introduce Bt maize for smallholder farmers in Africa.
This GM technology has revolutionised insect pest management and has proven to be a safe and effective way to combat pests and help ensure bountiful harvests.
Farmers plant their crops in hopes of reaping the full potential in the seeds that they purchase. Bt maize helps protect that genetic potential and minimises the negative impact of insects, and other pests, like Fall Armyworm. It is much needed and could be an excellent addition to an integrated pest management toolbox for farmers in Africa.