Maize stalk borer costs Zim mil­lions

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Feature/opinion - Sife­lani Tsiko

ZIM­BABWE could be los­ing up to $60 mil­lion worth of maize out­put a year due to fail­ure to adopt new plant breed­ing va­ri­eties re­sis­tant to the maize stalk borer, a pest that re­duces yields on the coun­try’s ma­jor sta­ple, a prom­i­nent lo­cal crop sci­en­tist has said. Dr Ian Robertson, a Harare-based crop ex­pert told the Zim­pa­pers Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices on the side­lines of the bioin­for­mat­ics re­search sym­po­sium which was held re­cently that the maize stalk borer has caused farm­ers to suf­fer losses of about 10 per­cent of the coun­try’s out­put.

“The maize stalk borer costs Zim­babwe about $60 mil­lion a year,” he said. “Ev­ery year $60 mil­lion goes into the mouth of the stalk borer and yet we could eas­ily har­ness Bacil­lus thuringien­sis (Bt), a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring soil bac­terium that we can use to pro­vide pro­tec­tion from dam­ag­ing in­sects such as the maize stalk borer.

“As a sci­en­tist here, we are able to iso­late Zim­bab­wean Bt bac­te­ria and use the pro­tein in it to pro­tect our maize crop from the maize stalk borer. It’s a serious is­sue for our farm­ers, they are los­ing up to 10 per­cent of their yields.”

The Na­tional Biotech­nol­ogy Au­thor­ity (NBA) in part­ner­ship with Chin­hoyi Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Harare In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and the Univer­sity of Mau­ri­tius (SANBio Bioin­for­mat­ics Node) or­gan­ised the bioin­for­mat­ics re­search sym­po­sium to in­crease aware­ness on the ap­pli­ca­tions across the coun­try’s re­search in­sti­tu­tions.

Ex­perts say bioin­for­mat­ics is use of com­put­ers and IT soft­ware to store, re­trieve, process, man­age and study vast amounts of bi­o­log­i­cal data.

Small­holder farm­ers are grap­pling with agri­cul­tural chal­lenges, in­clud­ing dev­as­tat­ing pests that af­fect their sta­ple crop such as maize lead­ing to poor yields.

Re­ports are wide­spread of how the maize stalk borer pest at­tacks the maize crop, lead­ing to poor yields and mis­ery for farm­ers.

“Mon­santo said it would cost $10 bil­lion to pro­duce ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied maize that can re­sist the stalk borer, but we can do it for less,” Dr Robertson said.

“With a $100 000 bucks, I tell you, we can do far much more to pro­mote the de­vel­op­ment of a maize va­ri­ety re­sis­tant to at­tacks by the stalk borer.

Zim­babwe sci­en­tists have been de­nied the right to de­velop new va­ri­eties which are re­sis­tant to plant pests and dis­eases.

Our Gov­ern­ment does not want to adopt new plant breed­ing tech­nolo­gies.

“I find it ex­tremely dis­ap­point­ing that our Gov­ern­ment is block­ing this new and emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy that could en­hance our food se­cu­rity and cut our im­port bill for maize.”

Crop ex­perts say the stalk borer in­fests the plant’s stalk and up­per leaves, caus­ing wilt­ing and lead­ing to death or stunt­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from the depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and Ru­ral Ex­ten­sion (Arex), stem bor­ers re­duce over­all maize pro­duc­tion in Zim­babwe by an av­er­age of 10 per­cent or be­tween 100 000 and 200 000 tonnes, which is equiv­a­lent to the amount of maize the coun­try has im­ported to meet its ce­real deficit.

And on av­er­age us­ing the GMB maize floor price fig­ure of $390 a tonne, Dr Robertson es­ti­mates that $60 mil­lion fig­ure could be conservative.

“A rough cal­cu­la­tions could give us about $60 mil­lion given maize out­put fluc­tu­a­tions. This fig­ure could be more rang­ing from $60 mil­lion up to about $80,” he said.

“It’s $60 mil­lion go­ing down the drain. We can ex­tract the Bt gene to fight against the maize stalk borer here in Zim­babwe.

We have an ex­cel­lent pool of crop sci­en­tists who can do the work. We are say­ing to the gov­ern­ment re­move the ban and sup­port us to do the work.”

The plant ex­pert, who sup­ports the de­vel­op­ment of GM maize, said devel­op­ing stalk borer re­sis­tant maize can save the coun­try more than $60 mil­lion a year.

“Bt maize can save our farm­ers up to 20 per­cent of their in­put cost,” Dr Robertson said. “Adopt­ing new plant breed­ing tech­niques can help make our farm­ers com­pet­i­tive.

At present, South African maize pro­duc­ers have a 20 per­cent com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage over their peers here Zim­babwe grap­pling with the maize stalk borer.”

Zim­babwe needs two mil­lion tonnes of maize an­nu­ally, but has over the past decades pro­duced be­tween 500 000 tonnes and just above 1,2 mil­lion tonnes.

The coun­try is cur­rently grap­pling with a food deficit ow­ing to the pun­ish­ing drought that hit Zim­babwe and other coun­tries in south­ern Africa last year.

It has a na­tional deficit of 700 000 tonnes of maize that is be­ing ad­dressed through im­por­ta­tion of grain from a num­ber of coun­tries by both the gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor.

Ini­tially, the gov­ern­ment planned to im­port maize from Zam­bia, South Africa, Mex­ico and Ukraine to fill the short­fall caused by the se­vere drought sweep­ing through south­ern Africa.

Zam­bia and South Africa were forced to stop ex­ports af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the drought. Zim­babwe has also re­lied on for­eign devel­op­men­tal part­ners and donor agen­cies to fill the deficit each year.

An El Nino-in­duced drought has hit south­ern Africa, slash­ing the out­put of the sta­ple maize crop.

The UN World Food Pro­gramme said ear­lier in June that out­put in Zim­babwe would fall be­low 60 per­cent of the five-year av­er­age of be­tween 700,000 and 1 mil­lion tonnes.

“Zim­bab­wean sci­en­tists can help ad­dress chal­lenges re­lated to the stalk borer prob­lem and help turn the for­tunes for the farm­ers,” Dr Robertson said.

“We need to en­gage Made (Agri­cul­ture, Mech­a­ni­sa­tion and Ir­ri­ga­tion De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Joseph Made) over the use of biotech­nol­ogy to breed our own maize stalk borer re­sis­tant crop.”

Zim­babwe does not ac­cept GM maize breed­ing and im­ports. When it ac­cepts emer­gency GM maize aid, it has to be milled un­der se­cu­rity watch.

The stalk borer and other pests have ad­versely af­fected the pro­duc­tion of maize, the sta­ple food for the ma­jor­ity of the Zim­bab­wean pop­u­la­tion.

Other African coun­tries such Kenya have their own sci­en­tists work­ing un­der the Wa­ter Ef­fi­cient Maize for Africa (WEMA) pub­lic-pri­vate sec­tor project to con­duct re­search and de­velop va­ri­eties that can with­stand the stalk borer pest.

There is hope that the de­vel­op­ment of va­ri­eties re­sis­tant to the stalk borer can bring hope for farm­ers grap­pling with the maize stalk borer prob­lem.

If Zim­babwe adopts the stalk borer-re­sis­tant maize va­ri­eties, Dr Robertson said, it could sig­nif­i­cantly boost their yields and con­trib­ute to improved liveli­hoods.

Plant crop ex­perts say bor­ers feed on all parts of a maize plant-leaves, stalk, sheath, ear col­lar, shank and ears, caus­ing dam­age, re­duc­ing the flow of wa­ter and nu­tri­ents through­out the plant, thereby re­duc­ing yields.

They say they cause dam­age and losses to grow­ers which can run into mil­lions of dol­lars.

Crop sci­en­tists also say the stan­dard chem­i­cal meth­ods of con­trol­ling stalk bor­ers can be time­con­sum­ing and in­ef­fec­tive, of­ten be­cause of suc­ces­sive in­fes­ta­tions dur­ing the sea­son.

Dr Robertson said the use of a Bt pro­tein can help end maize borer at­tacks.

“This new gene tech­nol­ogy is con­tained within the maize plant it­self and can last for a long time,” he said. “It has ef­fec­tive in­gre­di­ents that can kill the maize stalk borer.”

Over the years, Zim­babwe’s maize pro­duc­tion has been af­fected by ad­verse so­cio-eco­nomic fac­tors, sev­eral pests and dis­eases as well as drought.

Crop ex­perts es­ti­mate that Africa loses 20 to 30 per­cent of maize har­vests due to poor grain stor­age ev­ery year. The loss, es­ti­mated at over $4 bil­lion, is equiv­a­lent to food aid Africa has re­ceived over past 10 or more years.

Crop ex­perts fur­ther say that Africa is throw­ing away a lot of its food ow­ing to in­ad­e­quate har­vest, stor­age and trans­port prac­tices.

In 2011, the World Bank and the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion (FAO) es­ti­mated Africa’s lost food could feed at least 48 mil­lion peo­ple.

In other terms, the re­port noted that food loss was greater than food aid re­ceived by the con­ti­nent over the decade be­tween 1998 and 2008.

The World Bank and FAO found that mas­sive grain loss re­sulted from de­cay, pest de­struc­tion and phys­i­cal scat­ter­ing dur­ing har­vest and trans­porta­tion.

Their re­port noted that loss could also be eco­nom­i­cal, in the form of the low prices of poor qual­ity har­vest.

The man­age­ment of agri­cul­tural crop pests and dis­eases out­breaks in Zim­babwe has not been ad­e­quate ow­ing to lack of re­sources, skills and the fail­ure to adopt new tech­nolo­gies.

Crop pests and dis­eases out­breaks con­trib­ute to more yields loss. — Zim­pa­pers Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

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