HomeNational NewsNationalBT maize: A solution to perennial food insecurity in Malawi

BT maize: A solution to perennial food insecurity in Malawi

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Kanyangala Nkhoma, a 60-year-old peasant farmer from Kuliyani Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chitukula in Lilongwe, will face yet another life-threatening hunger this year.

Not because Nkhoma did not grow maize – Malawi’s staple grain – but because the prolonged dry spells that hit Malawi between January and February 2024 wilted the stalks before tasseling.

“This is one of the worst droughts I have ever seen in my life. I don’t know what to do,” a hopeless and helpless farmer lamented.

This year’s drought has stunted the growth of crops, especially maize, which is a staple grain in Malawi, and, as a result, there are fears that this will result in a decline in the size and quality of produce.

In districts such as Nsanje and Chikwawa, thousands of maize fields wilted while drought-resistant varieties were eaten by pests, thereby shattering hopes and dreams for a bumper harvest among smallholder farmers.

In Malawi, just like many countries in Africa, smallholder farmers heavily rely on rainfall to produce food such that even short-term drought causes a significant damage to crops, particularly when it occurs during key stages of crop development, such as after planting or during flowering.

But prolonged dry spells were not the only impacts the farmers are faced with this year. With the drought, pests such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, fall armyworms, beetles, and other pests found a perfect climate and environment for them to breed and spread.

Dr. Kingdom Kwapata, a biotechnology research scientist based at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), said in an interview this week that when there is a lot of rainfall, pests find it difficult to breed and spread as downpour tends to wash pests off of the plants.

Kwapata added that increasing drought affects staple crops, which, in the end, negatively impacts the availability of local food on the market.

Imported food is not the most suitable as it is often added with preservatives and has lower nutritional value, which can negatively affect human health.

With financial support from the National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST) and Open Forum for Agriculture Biotechnology (OFAB), LUANAR has started conducting trials on biotech (BT) maize at its Bunda Campus.

Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at LUANAR, Moses Maliro, said the introduction of genetically modified crops like maize brings in a new aspect in addressing food security problems in Malawi.

Maliro said time had come for the country to adopt and embrace BT maize as a measure to fight hunger, stressing that Malawi already has enabling policies and regulations for the safe use of biotechnology.

Professor Maliro explaining how the trials are progressing at the Confined Field Trial site–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu

He stated that biotechnology, like any other technology, has a lot of strength and offers a solution to challenges of drought, insects, among others.

And speaking to journalists who visited the confined field trial site at Bunda on February 29, 2024, Kwapata said the project implementation team was impressed with the progress of the research.

“The trials are going well as you can see. Our objective for the trials were to identify or to determine whether the gene for insect resistance, in particular fall armyworms, is working in the transgenic maize plants. And as you can see, it is very evident that those plants that have gotten the transgenes, their leaves are intact, while those that do not have, their leaves have been damaged by the fall armyworm,” he said.

He disclosed that the major benefit for the BT maize is that it will increase yield for the farmers.

Kwapata stated that this will, in turn, address problems of food insecurity, adding that this will also increase incomes for the farmers.

“As you know that for armyworms are one of the major devastating pests for maize in this country. Now that this research has demonstrated that the maize varieties that we have are resistant to this insect, I think is good news. For farmers in the country as a whole,” he narrated.

Asked when the farmers will start accessing the BT maize seeds on the market, Kwapata indicated that the trials will take close to three to four years.

He said after conducting the first stage, they will need to take the trials to other parts of the country to ensure that the stability of the gene in the sense that it should be able to perform as it is performing at Bunda.

“So, we want to have a uniformity in terms of performance across the nation. So that will take about two years. And then the other year, probably will be issues to do with the registration and deregistration of the trade so that it can be commercialized,” he explained.

Chief Research Officer at NCST, Lyson Kampira, said biotechnology has potential to manage pests, especially in the maize crops, which reduces yields in Malawi.

Kampira said this is why the Commission is promoting the technology.

“And having visited the trial site, what we can see and say at this point is that it appears BT maize has not fallen victim to fall armyworms in the sense that it is growing very well while our local varieties are suffering, especially those that have not been,” he narrated.

In his remarks, OFAB Project Manager Vitumbiko Chinoko parried away fears and rumours associated with GM maize, assuring that GM crops are safe for human consumption.

Chinoko: Ignore the propaganda against GMOs, they are all false–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu

Chinoko disclosed that GM crops have been tried and tested in many countries, including the United States and South Africa, where they are working wonders in addressing problems of food insecurity.

“We are supporting the technology development in particular, the modern technologies like what you’re seeing here, GMO technologies, because we see how our climate, for example, is affecting agriculture and food systems in Africa. The population is growing. And we also see how the food input bill for Africa is growing. So the only way African individual member states can counter those challenges is if we improve on the adoption and integration of technologies into our ledger systems,” he said.

Chinoko stated that Malawi is not doing very well in terms of adoption and investment in modern technologies in the agriculture sector.

“Even when you look at the Malabo Declaration, the 10 percent commitment to agriculture, very little of it is going into science and technology. And even very little, again, is going into modern technologies such as GMOs and the other technologies. So what we’re saying is that I think it’s high time for Africa. It’s high time for Malawi, to embrace these kind of technologies because they do have an impact. They do have an impact in terms of food security and nutrition. But more importantly also in terms of how it can cover and protect the economy of this of this country,” he stated.

According to Chinoko, a number of African countries have already embraced and are currently using GM technologies. He cited South Africa, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

He said very soon, the Government of Mozambique will commercialize GMOs after conducting successful trials on them.

“So what I’d say is that all these perceptions and propaganda that you’ve been hearing about technologies are actually false,” he emphasized.

For smallholder farmers like Kanyangala Nkhoma, probably GM technologies are the ‘messiah’ they have been waiting for to save them from perennial hunger.

Nkhoma is convinced that GM maize would help him to deal with adverse climate change conditions.

“I can assure you that I will be among the first farmers to buy BT maize seed. I am tired of nursing hunger in my family,” he said.

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