Africa loses 25% to maize diseases

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Africa has been losing up to 25% of its maize harvest due to pests and insects such as stem borers that damage emerging leaves of young maize.Stem borers are a class of insect pests, made up of a number of moth species distributed around the world, which lay their eggs at night on the underside of emerging leaves of young maize plants.
The larvae, or caterpillars, that hatch from the eggs - i.e. the borers - quickly make their way inside the plant, where they feed undisturbed by predators.
Due to the seriousness of stem borers among others, the scientists at the Regional Rice Research and Training Centre at Namulonge in Uganda have kicked off an investigation to determine the origin and develop resistance.
One of the scientists at Namulonge, Grace Abalo said maize is a major food crop in Africa, especially in the eastern and southern regions of the continent.
 “We have no way rather than to work for these pests and insects so as to help our farmers by developing resistance,” she said.
Abalo said taking into consideration for many, maize is the main dietary staple, as evidenced by annual consumption levels of 79 kg per capita in the region and 125 kg per capita in Kenya.
“Threats to this food source endanger food security, and stem borers pose just such a threat in much of Africa,” she noted.
In Kenya alone, farmers report losing 15% of their maize harvest to stem borers, equivalent to 400,000 tons of maize valued at $72 million.
Farmers in some areas including Tanzania and Uganda have also reported losses as high as 45%.
The Insect Resistant Maize for Africa project has been supporting resource poor farmers to increase their maize crop yield, and reduce the loss from storage pests.
A recently report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) which detailed about the opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture suggested the application of genetic engineering to curb the said maize disease caused by the stem borers.
The study says a billion people on this planet experience hunger; another billion eat a diet lacking in essential vitamins and minerals. The world’s population continues to grow and, over the next 40 years, agricultural production will have to increase by some 60%.
Meanwhile the study availed to East African Business Week said a quarter of all agricultural land has already suffered degradation, and there is a deepening awareness of the long term consequences of a loss of biodiversity.
A Chief Researcher of the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), Dr Nicholaus Nyange told East African Business Week recently during one of the trainings organized by COSTECH that the global pattern of food consumption too is changing, with rising affluence fuelling a greater demand for meat.
Dr Nyange said all this with the prospect of imminent climate change. This is to say that agriculture faces challenges over the coming decades are to express the problem mildly.
He suggested that one of the tools available to plant scientists is the breeding of new crop varieties using genetic modification, a technique that has generated much controversy in recent decades.
“Although the technology has attracted the closest attention, it is only one of a clutch of new breeding technologies to have been developed in recent decades,” he noted.
The term GM is generally taken to mean the introduction into an organism of genetic material from a different species.
But scientists have also devised other forms of intervention in which, for example, the added material comes from another member of the same species. The material itself may or may not have been modified in some way.
By these and other methods it is possible to create a wide variety of potentially beneficial genetic changes.
Although making no claim that GM technology represents the only or even the most important way forward, the report argues that it must be allowed to take its place among the scientific advances that European plant breeders and farmers can call upon.
Given the scale and severity of the challenges to agriculture we cannot afford to neglect any of the finite number of strategies at our disposal. No new technology should be excluded on purely ideological grounds.