Though Uganda’s legislators have paused for a vacation without taking action on the nation’s biosafety bill, the voracious fall armyworm is not about to vacate farmers’ maize fields.
The devastating pest, which has persisted through two seasons of planting, is causing desperation among farming communities. Some farmers are tripling their use of pesticides, while others have begun reducing the amount of land in maize production — a move that could have implications for food prices in the entire east African region.
Recent Uganda field trials of the genetically modified Water Efficient Maize for Africa project indicated the crop showed both drought tolerance and resistance to the maize stalk borer pest, as well as the fall armyworm. Reports from trials in Kenya and Mozambique show similar results.
But Uganda’s farmers cannot access GM crops until their government adopts a biosafety bill. Parliament passed the bill last October, and President Yoweri Museveni returned it for review last December. It has been in limbo ever since. Parliament recessed on June 1 without acting on the bill and isn’t expected to reconvene until early July.
Meanwhile, maize farmers are suffering a three-fold increase in pesticide costs as they attempt to stop the caterpillars from devouring their crops. Though the government also has spent billions of shillings in an attempt to control fall armyworms with pesticides, that approach does not seem to be working, according to a recent report in New Vision, Uganda’s leading daily newspaper.
Rev. Joshua Masaba, a farmer and a spiritual leader from Bugiri in Eastern Uganda, shared the frustrations of corn farmers in his community. “The fall armyworm is still here with us and has tripled the cost of producing maize since we have to spray for it at least three times,” he said. According to Masaba, some farmers have started to abandon corn for other crops, such as groundnuts, soybean and okra.
“We do not have agricultural extension workers who can teach us how to control these pests,” Masaba said. “Even when we go to the market to buy agrochemicals, the chemical dealers sell to us counterfeit products that are ineffective. We are starting to abandon maize growing.”
A reduction in maize production could have food security implications for Kenya, which imports up to 78 percent of Uganda’s maize, according to the East African Grain Council. Most Ugandans prefer banana (matooke) to posho, which works to keep maize prices comparatively low. A reduction in Uganda’s maize exports could lead to higher food prices throughout east Africa.
The lack of credible information about the cause of the infestation has led to rampant speculation, with some farmers stating their reluctance to buy improved seeds because they believe the fall armyworm eggs were introduced through seeds.
The situation prompted New Vision to publish a hard-hitting editorial calling for government to mobilize Uganda’s scientists to find a long-term solution to the fall army worm. “It is a scandal, even criminal, that knowing that we are an agricultural nation we can be so casual about the ecosystem that holds up this industry, which provides a livelihood for at least 70 percent of Ugandans,” it stated. But even this strong media criticism did not encourage policy makers to take up the biosafety bill before recessing.
Legislators did pass the nation’s 2018-19 budget, which means the ministry in charge of science and technology will not have funding to implement the biosafety bill, even if it is enacted. Instead, the ministry likely would need to seek a supplementary budget from the finance minister in order to establish and staff the various offices proposed in the bill.