Dr. Barbas Kiula views a Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) maize trial at the Ilonga Agricultural Research Institute.
Photo by Evelyn Situma

WEMA: Helping Africa develop better maize

By: Evelyn Situma
African Agricultural Technology Foundation

Drought, already a serious agricultural challenge, is projected to worsen in many areas due to climate change. When plants are stressed by insufficient water and heat, they become more susceptible to disease and insect threats.

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project is a public-private partnership coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) to develop drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties. These varieties will offer benefits to smallholder farmers – most of whom are women – so they can feed their families and increase their incomes.

The project uses both conventional advanced plant breeding techniques and biotechnology in the development of the maize varieties. The WEMA varieties will be marketed by local seed suppliers royalty-free to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Why is drought tolerance important for smallholder farmers?

Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky for millions of smallholder farmers who rely on rainfall to water their crops. Maize is the most widely grown staple crop in Africa – more than 300 million people depend on it as their main food source – and it is severely affected by frequent drought. Drought leads to crop failure, hunger, and poverty. Climate change will only worsen the problem. Identifying ways to mitigate drought risk, stabilize yields, and encourage small-scale farmers to adopt best management practices is fundamental to realizing food security and improved livelihoods for the continent.

Why is insect protection needed in WEMA?

Insects present additional challenges as farmers in the developing world have little or no resources to effectively manage them. For most smallholder farmers, the only option for controlling pest insects is to spray the plants numerous times with insecticides that are costly and are not easily available. After four years of research on drought tolerance it became clear that insects were having significant negative impacts on yield that could offset the benefits possible through drought tolerance.

Stem borer insect pests feed on every major part of the maize plant, thus reducing the flow of water and nutrients, causing stem breakage due to physical damage and possible development of toxins caused by damage to the plant. Some of the most dramatic losses occur when drought conditions and insect pressure combine in the field. Drought negatively impacts overall plant health resulting in a reduction in crop yield. Insects add to the impact by reducing the plant’s ability to use already limited water and nutrients. In severe cases, the combination quickly leads to complete crop failure.

Insect protected maize provides in-plant insect protection against damaging stem borer insect pests, which allows more widespread and consistent control of target pests on the maize plant. Insect protection ensures better plant health so plants will be able to use the water and nutrients they have more efficiently. It also reduces pesticide use, which benefits both the environment and human health.

How does insect protection work?

Insect protection was developed from the naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short, which produces a protein that is toxic to the digestive systems of a targeted group of insects. Through genetic modification, a modified form of the insect-protected gene is inserted into the maize plant, so it can produce the protein on its own. This approach enables the plant to defend itself against these insects and reduces the amount of insecticides needed. Extensive studies have demonstrated that the protein is safe to humans, livestock, wildlife, non-target organisms and beneficial insects. These proteins have been used in organic farming for over 50 years to control insect pests.

Insect protected maize is approved in major maize growing regions of the world. In 2010, insect-protected maize was planted on 10.2 million hectares worldwide, with approximately 1.6 million hectares of this specific insect protected maize planted in South Africa. Insect-protected maize has been in the market for over 16 years, with over 25 countries growing it today. Since commercialization of insect-protected crops in 1996, this maize has been planted on 106 million hectares in over 25 countries.

Are these new maize varieties safe?

The new WEMA varieties, including products developed with transgenic approaches, will need to pass all regulatory requirements and evaluations in the countries where they will be grown before farmers can cultivate them. The varieties developed through transgenic approaches also undergo detailed food, feed, and environmental assessments that assure consumers of no new health risks.

Will farmers be able to save WEMA seeds for replanting?

WEMA seeds are hybrids. Farmers will be free to save seed for replanting. However, just as with traditional seed, it is good farm management practice to source and plant the best available seed each season for consistently good harvests. This will protect the crop from failures caused by loss in seed quality which occurs each time the harvested grain is saved as seed and used for planting.

Who are the partners?

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Monsanto, and the national agricultural research systems in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. The partners will be contributing their technology and expertise to the project. The project will involve local institutions, both public and private, and in the process expand their capacity and experience in crop breeding, biotechnology, and biosafety. Funding is provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

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