Call for GM maize to fight armyworm

Thursday March 16 2017

Armyworm invasion: The African armyworm is capable of destroying whole crops in a few days. PHOTO | AFP | CABI

Scientists in East Africa are pushing for the approval of genetically modified maize (BT), saying it can withstand the armyworm that has caused farmers massive losses.

A survey carried out last year in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania found that the armyworm has infested crops in the three countries, threatening the livelihoods of farmers. The pests have so far damaged an estimated 287,000 hectares of maize in East and Southern Africa.

According to Murenga Mwimali of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) programme at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), the findings have been forwarded to the countries’ ministries of agriculture for action.

Researchers at Kalro and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation say if approved, the Bt maize will give farmers some protection against the armyworms.

The scientists are particularly worried about the advance of the fall armyworm (spodoptera frugiperda), which was first reported on the African continent in Nigeria.

It subsequently appeared across parts of West and Central Africa, before extensively invading fields in Southern Africa in December 2016. The destructive activities of the fall armyworm have only served to add to the devastation caused by the native African armyworm (spodoptera exempta) and the severe drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon in 2015-2016.


As farmers await the approval of the BT maize by governments in East Africa, Dr Mwimali advises them to use commercial formulations of Bt that are available locally.

Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority approved the environmental release of the BT maize in February 2016 with conditions: Submission of environmental impact assessment reports to the National Environment Management Authority for review and approval.

“This would then allow us to undertake national performance trials to identify suitable varieties as required by the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act so that farmers who are affected by stem borer reduce insect damage and protect their yields through the use of the Bt maize,” said Wema project manager, Sylvester Oikeh.

“However, despite the submission of the report in April 2016, we are yet to get the EIA licence from NEMA. Coincidentally, the Wema confined field trials in Uganda show the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene can control the fall armyworms,” said Mr Oikeh.

The MON810 Bt maize entries showed resistance to the fall armyworm compared with non-transgenic maize materials. This, however, needs to be further confirmed through additional experiments.

According to Dr Mwimali, the African armyworm is capable of destroying whole crops in a few days. The larvae feed on all types of grasses, early stages of all cereal crops. The pest is migratory, and exists in East Africa.

However, with climate change and the associated increase in temperatures, these could change from being a minor pest to a major pest in all kinds of grasses.

Scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) are currently researching available breeding resources with potential resistance to fall armyworm, and screening elite maize germplasm to identify possible sources of resistance.

CIMMYT, which has its headquarters in Mexico, is a non-profit research and training institution dedicated to the development of improved varieties of wheat and maize.