Agricultural industry stakeholders in Africa are pushing for the application of innovative technology to help deal with fall armyworms, which have invaded farms across the continent. They say this is crucial to avert future destruction of farm fields as has been seen on the continent this farming season, plunging farmers into debt.
“We cannot solve this problem unless we do things differently from the same way we have been doing it over the years. What we need now is for our scientists to think outside the box and introduce advanced technology to help us survive,” John Awuku Dziwornu, vice president of the Ghana National Farmers and Fishermen Association (GNAFF), said in an interview.
African farmers have battled pests for several centuries now, including the African armyworm. But for the first time, in 2016, the fall armyworm, a pest native to the Americas, invaded the continent, destroying crops beyond salvage.
Fall armyworms feed on more than 80 plant species, including maize, rice, sorghum, vegetables and cotton. They have an insatiable appetite and can reproduce and spread quickly, making them one of the most destructive pests in the world.
Deborah Obeng is a farmer in the Central Region of Ghana and a mother of three. For the last 20 years, she has educated her children and fed her family through farming. But this has been a terrible season for her. She has lost the more than $250 she invested in her fields at the start of the planting season.
“We didn’t get anything from our two-acre farm,” she said in an interview. “I invested about 1,000 cedis in fertilizer and other inputs. We have made a loss. We will cut down the fields and re-plant again and see what we will get.” In Ghana, the pests have infected more than 115,000 hectares of farm fields, leaving farmers struggling.
The pests were first detected in the West Africa in January 2016 and have now affected farm fields in more than 26 countries. Maize (corn), a major staple for more than 200 million persons in Sub-Saharan Africa, is the crop being destroyed the most by the fall armyworm, thus threatening local food security.
A study by the United Kingdom-based Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) estimates the pests will cost governments and people on the continent more than $13.383 billion this year and cause a 9 percent loss in Gross Domestic Products (GDP). “Overall costs of losses for maize, sorghum, rice and sugarcane in Africa are estimated to be approximately $13,383m. This does not take into account up to 80 other crops the insect has been known to feed on, as well as subsequent seed lost for the following growing seasons,” a report by CABI released in April 2017 noted.
In response, African governments have been busy importing pesticides to deal with the pests. In Ghana alone, the government has set aside 16 million cedis ($4 million) to purchase and distribute chemicals as well as educate farmers on the pests. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has warned overuse of chemicals could destroy the natural habitat, poison the environment and threaten lives. “The key recommendation is not to intervene too early with chemical products because early intervention with chemicals destroy the natural enemies,” Hans Dreye, director of the Plant Production and Protection Division at FAO in Rome, told local media during an international conference in Accra on the fall armyworm pests.
Ghanaian scientists agree with the FAO. “When we put a lot of chemicals in the atmosphere, we are contaminating the environment. We are even killing ourselves because there will be effects on those who apply. And more so the insects we are trying to control also build resistance to the chemicals. So, the chemical option is actually not the best,” Alhaji Ibrahim Adama, a scientist with the Crop Research Institute of Ghana and member of the National Armyworm Taskforce, noted.
But there are even bigger concerns that the chemicals being used to control the pests are not effective. Kofi Gyamera is one of the farmers whose fields have been destroyed in the Assin South District of Ghana. He bemoans repeated application of recommended chemicals have not helped stem the destruction of his two-acre corn field, in which he invested more than 4000 cedis ($1,000). “I have been farming for 13 years now. But this year, fall armyworms have invaded our farms. I have applied chemicals on 13 different occasions but still they are on the farm. I have really suffered. They have destroyed three of my farms totally,” he lamented.
In the Americas and South Africa, farmers have over the years relied on genetically engineered (Bt maize) to survive fall armyworm attacks. South Africa, where 85 percent of the maize grown is the Bt variety, is expecting a bumper harvest this farming season despite the pest invasion. Sub-Saharan African farmers now want their own governments to adopt this alternative.
“Genetic engineering, biotechnology, that is the solution we must go for,” John Awuku Dziwornu , vice president of the Ghana National Farmers and Fishermen Association (GNAFF), said in an interview. “With this technology, you can introduce the new gene into local varieties so that we can be able to contain that Armyworm infestation. GMO technology is where the world is going to and Africa cannot be left out.”
Patrick Osofo Apullah of the Cotton Farmers Association of Ghana agrees. “The GMOs have come to stay. It will help us reduce the use of chemicals. The evidence is there all over the world for us to see and government must prioritize the application of this technology,” he explained.
Scientists at Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) say the suggestion is one of several options they believe can be considered to help Africa fight the pests. Dr. Kofi Frimpong Anin is an entomologist at the Crop Research Institute of the CSIR. He lists the alternative control measures, including introducing natural enemies of the pests to control them, inter-cropping to break pest build up and growing plants that can repel the pests.
“We also have the Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, which is made of bacteria that attacks the pests. And elsewhere, they incorporate the gene into the maize so that when the pests feed on it, it kills them. It’s an option we can exploit to reduce the infestation,” Dr. Frimpong Anin explained.
Dr. Michael Osei Adu, a crop scientist at the University of Cape Coast, says Ghana must take the GMO technology seriously so it can adequately deal with challenges like fall armyworm and other pests that attack crops. “As a country, if we are serious about our food security, we cannot continually and forever run away from genetically engineering. It holds potential for us to exploit,” he said.
Dr. Rose Gidado , assistant director of the Nigerian National Biotechnology Development Agency, holds a similar position. “GM technology will reduce the use of these chemicals and their effects on the environment. Since the genetically modified varieties will have natural resistance to the armyworm, there will be no need to spray chemicals as expected…,” she explained.
“In other countries, GM technology use has reported a decrease in chemical sprays by 37 percent and an increase in yield by 21 percent. This shows that the technology is very beneficial to farmers and the environment as well… Nigeria and Ghana should speed up the process of adopting and commercializing WEMA (Water Efficient Maize or Africa) varieties, which have conferred resistance to armyworm pest in other countries,” Dr. Gidado added.
Joseph Opoku Gakpo is a journalist, the Alliance for Science correspondent in Ghana and a 2016 Global Leadership Fellow.