ZIMBABWE could be losing up to $60 million worth of maize output a year due to failure to adopt new plant breeding varieties resistant to the maize stalk borer, a pest that reduces yields on the country’s major staple, a prominent local crop scientist has said.
Dr Ian Robertson, a Harare-based crop expert told the Zimpapers Syndication Services on the sidelines of the bioinformatics research symposium which was held recently that the maize stalk borer has caused farmers to suffer losses of about 10 percent of the country’s output.
“The maize stalk borer costs Zimbabwe about $60 million a year,” he said. “Every year $60 million goes into the mouth of the stalk borer and yet we could easily harness Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacterium that we can use to provide protection from damaging insects such as the maize stalk borer.
“As a scientist here, we are able to isolate Zimbabwean Bt bacteria and use the protein in it to protect our maize crop from the maize stalk borer.
It’s a serious issue for our farmers, they are losing up to 10 percent of their yields.”
The National Biotechnology Authority (NBA) in partnership with Chinhoyi University of Technology, Harare Institute of Technology and the University of Mauritius (SANBio Bioinformatics Node) organised the bioinformatics research symposium to increase awareness on the applications across the country’s research institutions.
Experts say bioinformatics is use of computers and IT software to store, retrieve, process, manage and study vast amounts of biological data.
Smallholder farmers are grappling with agricultural challenges, including devastating pests that affect their staple crop such as maize leading to poor yields.
Reports are widespread of how the maize stalk borer pest attacks the maize crop, leading to poor yields and misery for farmers.
“Monsanto said it would cost $10 billion to produce genetically modified maize that can resist the stalk borer, but we can do it for less,” Dr Robertson said.
“With a $100 000 bucks, I tell you, we can do far much more to promote the development of a maize variety resistant to attacks by the stalk borer.
Zimbabwe scientists have been denied the right to develop new varieties which are resistant to plant pests and diseases.
Our Government does not want to adopt new plant breeding technologies.
“I find it extremely disappointing that our Government is blocking this new and emerging technology that could enhance our food security and cut our import bill for maize.”
Crop experts say the stalk borer infests the plant’s stalk and upper leaves, causing wilting and leading to death or stunting.
According to statistics from the department of Agriculture and Rural Extension (Arex), stem borers reduce overall maize production in Zimbabwe by an average of 10 percent or between 100 000 and 200 000 tonnes, which is equivalent to the amount of maize the country has imported to meet its cereal deficit.
And on average using the GMB maize floor price figure of $390 a tonne, Dr Robertson estimates that $60 million figure could be conservative.
“A rough calculations could give us about $60 million given maize output fluctuations. This figure could be more ranging from $60 million up to about $80,” he said.
“It’s $60 million going down the drain. We can extract the Bt gene to fight against the maize stalk borer here in Zimbabwe.
We have an excellent pool of crop scientists who can do the work. We are saying to the government remove the ban and support us to do the work.”
The plant expert, who supports the development of GM maize, said developing stalk borer resistant maize can save the country more than $60 million a year.
“Bt maize can save our farmers up to 20 percent of their input cost,” Dr Robertson said. “Adopting new plant breeding techniques can help make our farmers competitive.
At present, South African maize producers have a 20 percent competitive advantage over their peers here Zimbabwe grappling with the maize stalk borer.”
Zimbabwe needs two million tonnes of maize annually, but has over the past decades produced between 500 000 tonnes and just above 1,2 million tonnes.
The country is currently grappling with a food deficit owing to the punishing drought that hit Zimbabwe and other countries in southern Africa last year.
It has a national deficit of 700 000 tonnes of maize that is being addressed through importation of grain from a number of countries by both the government and the private sector.
Initially, the government planned to import maize from Zambia, South Africa, Mexico and Ukraine to fill the shortfall caused by the severe drought sweeping through southern Africa.
Zambia and South Africa were forced to stop exports after experiencing the drought. Zimbabwe has also relied on foreign developmental partners and donor agencies to fill the deficit each year.
An El Nino-induced drought has hit southern Africa, slashing the output of the staple maize crop.
The UN World Food Programme said earlier in June that output in Zimbabwe would fall below 60 percent of the five-year average of between 700,000 and 1 million tonnes.
“Zimbabwean scientists can help address challenges related to the stalk borer problem and help turn the fortunes for the farmers,” Dr Robertson said.
“We need to engage Made (Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Joseph Made) over the use of biotechnology to breed our own maize stalk borer resistant crop.”
Zimbabwe does not accept GM maize breeding and imports. When it accepts emergency GM maize aid, it has to be milled under security watch.
The stalk borer and other pests have adversely affected the production of maize, the staple food for the majority of the Zimbabwean population.
Other African countries such Kenya have their own scientists working under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) public-private sector project to conduct research and develop varieties that can withstand the stalk borer pest.
There is hope that the development of varieties resistant to the stalk borer can bring hope for farmers grappling with the maize stalk borer problem.
If Zimbabwe adopts the stalk borer-resistant maize varieties, Dr Robertson said, it could significantly boost their yields and contribute to improved livelihoods.
Plant crop experts say borers feed on all parts of a maize plant-leaves, stalk, sheath, ear collar, shank and ears, causing damage, reducing the flow of water and nutrients throughout the plant, thereby reducing yields.
They say they cause damage and losses to growers which can run into millions of dollars.
Crop scientists also say the standard chemical methods of controlling stalk borers can be time-consuming and ineffective, often because of successive infestations during the season.
Dr Robertson said the use of a Bt protein can help end maize borer attacks.
“This new gene technology is contained within the maize plant itself and can last for a long time,” he said. “It has effective ingredients that can kill the maize stalk borer.”
Over the years, Zimbabwe’s maize production has been affected by adverse socio-economic factors, several pests and diseases as well as drought.
Crop experts estimate that Africa loses 20 to 30 percent of maize harvests due to poor grain storage every year. The loss, estimated at over $4 billion, is equivalent to food aid Africa has received over past 10 or more years.
Crop experts further say that Africa is throwing away a lot of its food owing to inadequate harvest, storage and transport practices.
In 2011, the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated Africa’s lost food could feed at least 48 million people.
In other terms, the report noted that food loss was greater than food aid received by the continent over the decade between 1998 and 2008.
The World Bank and FAO found that massive grain loss resulted from decay, pest destruction and physical scattering during harvest and transportation.
Their report noted that loss could also be economical, in the form of the low prices of poor quality harvest.
The management of agricultural crop pests and diseases outbreaks in Zimbabwe has not been adequate owing to lack of resources, skills and the failure to adopt new technologies.
Crop pests and diseases outbreaks contribute to more yields loss. — Zimpapers Syndication Services