Hope As Farmers Inch Closer To Accessing Fall Armyworm-Tolerant Maize Hybrids

In this question and answer with Dr. B.M. Prasanna, Director, Global Maize Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE), we discover the significance of this momentous breakthrough and an indication on when farmers in Africa are likely to obtain fall armyworm tolerant maize hybrids. 

The farming community has a reason to smile after the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) recently announced it had successfully developed three CIMMYT-derived fall armyworm-tolerant elite maize hybrids for eastern and southern Africa. The breakthrough comes three years after intensive research and trials were conducted in Kenya. This represents a giant step in the global fight against fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda). 

The pest emerged as a serious threat to maize production in Africa in 2016 before spreading to Asia in 2018. Host plant resistance is a significant aspect of integrated pest management (IPM). 

Question: How many of the fall armyworm tolerant hybrids are earmarked for eastern and southern Africa?

Prasanna: Three hybrids are mainly for the eastern and southern Africa region.

Question: When do you anticipate the seeds to be available to farmers in the target countries?

Prasanna: We are partnering with the national agriculture research systems (NARS) in each of the target countries in eastern and southern Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, so that these hybrids are nominated for national performance trials (NPTs) as soon as possible. The national performance trials (NPTs) could probably begin in some of the countries in March this year. Typically, this process takes one or two years depending on the process adopted by the regulatory authorities in the different countries. 

There is a due process that is followed in each of the countries. And then, we expect that either all the three hybrids or at least one or two of them will be released in each of our target countries. This depends on how they perform not just for fall armyworm but also for other important agronomic traits the national regulatory authorities evaluate. 

Once the regulatory authorities evaluate the hybrids, seed scale-up and commercialization will commence. We are hopeful that at least a few countries in eastern and southern Africa will accelerate the process of varietal evaluation and release, so that the hybrids start reaching the farming communities from 2022 onwards. 

Question: What are the resources and processes involved in developing this technology?

Prasanna: CIMMYT scientists in Mexico have undertaken research work on insect-pest resistance in the tropical maize germplasm since the 1990s. Fall armyworm is more recent in Africa, but it has been prevalent in countries such as Mexico for many years. CIMMYT’s work in Mexico led to development of tropical maize germplasm with resistance to fall armyworm. So, we were not starting from scratch. 

After the fall armyworm entered the region in 2016-2017, we started rigorous evaluation of diverse maize germplasm from CIMMYT, including germplasm from Mexico as well as locally developed germplasm in Africa against the pest under artificial infestation in large screenhouses we established at the maize research station in Kiboko, Kenya. All the experiments took place within the screenhouses and not in open conditions. We screened those materials, identified promising germplasm and then validated them for additional one or two seasons. 

A series of experiments have happened over the last three years before we identified a set of eight hybrids for further intensive evaluation. These eight hybrids alongside some commercial hybrid checks that are widely cultivated in eastern and southern Africa were subjected to intensive screening in the screenhouses and under natural fall armyworm infestation on station at six locations in Kenya. We also did on-farm trials at 16 locations in Kenya. 

In addition, we undertook regional trials in Kenya and Uganda to collect data on other important traits, including drought tolerance and disease resistance. We took all the data into account and shortlisted three most promising hybrids for announcement in December 2020. 

Question: Can you estimate the damage that fall armyworm causes annually and whether the pest is still a major problem for farmers in Africa?

Prasanna: There are no exact and recent economic estimates on the extent of crop losses that fall armyworm has caused. But, on average, fall armyworm is reported to cause almost 10-12 percent of maize production losses in sub-Saharan Africa. This is quite significant given that several African countries are still not self-sufficient for maize.  

Secondly, the cost of protecting the crops is high for resource-poor smallholders. Farmers are in general investing their precious resources into buying and spraying pesticides to protect their crops from the insect-pest. These costs could translate into hundreds of millions of dollars across eastern and southern Africa.

Question: What is your message to farmers?

Prasanna: Once the fall armyworm tolerant maize varieties are released, it is not that they will be a complete panacea against the pest, but it provides significant protection. It is almost impossible to eradicate fall armyworm. The pest is here to stay. We need to continue practicing good agronomic practices by cultivating fall armyworm tolerant and climate resilient maize varieties as part of integrated pest management. Farmers should not spray unnecessarily harmful chemicals or toxic pesticides that can damage their health and the environment. The resistant varieties need to be used in combination with good agronomic management and biological control for sustainable management of fall armyworm. The availability of improved maize varieties that can resist the fall armyworm is indeed an important step forward. 

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