As armyworm invasion devastates crops, Ugandan scientists bemoan GMO political stalemate

By Mark Lynas

March 12, 2018

Ugandan scientists are confident that their latest field trials of genetically modified drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize are yielding promising results, and say the seeds should be ready for farmers within two years — if the political environment improves.

The ongoing trial of Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) hybrids at Namulonge, Uganda, show strong protection against both stem borer and fall armyworm pests, according to Dr. Godfrey Asea, director of the National Crops Resources Research Institute there.

“In all cases the GMO version is better protected and has better yields.” Dr. Godfrey Asea

“It’s the same story in all the trials,” he noted, pointing to rows of experimental non-GM and GM maize growing next to each other at the confined field trial (CFT) site down a dusty road in Namulonge.

The maize plants labeled “GMO” were tall and green, while the non-GMO versions were riddled with insect damage and much smaller, displaying yellowing leaves and smaller seed cobs. The hybrids were identical except for the introduced genes, Asea explained.

“We have done our research, now we have to make sure it reaches the farmer,” Asea added. “This is the fourth trial. I think we have enough results. Once the regulatory environment allows us to move to the next stage, I think we are ready. Within a year or two we should have something ready for the farmer.”

Dr. Godfrey Asea at Namulonge WEMA field trial.

Farmers across Uganda have battled infestations of fall armyworm in recent years, suffering severe losses as the newly invasive pest proliferates. Maize is a staple crop throughout eastern and southern Africa, and the food security of hundreds of millions of people has been undermined as a result.

Although the WEMA maize being developed at Namulonge was developed primarily for drought tolerance in order to help maize farmers cope with climate change, it also carries an insect-resistant Bt gene that protects against two primary maize pests: stem borer and fall armyworm. Addition of the Bt gene should allow Ugandan farmers to dramatically improve yields with less need for expensive and environmentally toxic pesticides, according to Asea.

The average maize yield for Ugandan farmers is only 2.5 tonnes per hectare, according to Asea. He projected that with better crop management and the “stacked” multi-gene maize conferring both drought tolerance and insect resistance, farmers should be able to produce 8-10 tonnes per hectare.

The Namulonge trials are part of the multi-country WEMA project, which brings together local crop scientists in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. So far, only South Africa has commercialized GM WEMA maize, and farmers there have widely adopted the resilient crop.

Lule Monica, a local Ugandan farmer and council leader, was also present at the Namulonge WEMA trial, where she expressed support for the project. “Usually we are affected by stem borer, but armyworm has done a lot of havoc in our fields,” she said. “When I came here I saw there were some GMO maize that were doing very well and others [non-GMO] were very poor.”

Though farmer Lule Monica lives near the trial sites, she expressed frustration that she still has no imminent prospect of being able to grow the more promising varieties of maize, to the current political stalemate over legalizing the cultivation of GMOs. “They have the solutions but their hands are tied,” she said, in reference to the scientists.

“It is my prayer that GM maize will be released soon.” Farmer Lule Monica

Ugandan scientists had hoped the scene would be set for new GM varieties of maize and other staple crops to be quickly released to farmers when Parliament passed the long-stalled Biosafety Bill last December. However, after vociferous protests by anti-GMO activists, President Yoweri Museveni sent the bill back to Parliament for yet another reconsideration.

Asea acknowledged the frustration of scientists and farmers over this latest delay. “I think there are still a lot of misconceptions, a lot of myths,” about GM crops, he said. “As scientists, we cannot reach everyone in the country. Unfortunately, those who know the least seem to speak the most. We want to see a future where these field trials are not confined. We hope and dream, but that path isn’t easy.”

According to political analysts, Uganda’s Parliament may reconsider the Biosafety Bill as early as this week. However, politically influential anti-GMO activists, who are mainly supported by foreign NGOs, remain determined to prevent Uganda’s subsistence farmers from ever being able to access any GM crops.

If anti-GMO campaigners retain sufficient high-level political influence in Uganda to allow them to continue to frustrate the work of agricultural scientists, farmers like Lule Monica may be left with little more than prayers and devastated crops for many years to come.