Project to introduce drought-resistant maize continues in Africa

A long-term project to introduce and develop genetically modified drought-resistant maize to Africa has been billed a success by one of it drivers, the biotechnology giant Monsanto.

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, up and running since 2008, was created with “a goal to enhance food security in sub-Saharan Africa,” according to the company.

Under the project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), farmers in five countries down the east coast and round the cape of Africa are now using a variety of drought-resistant germplasms, or seeds.

These are provided royalty-free to smallholder farmers in South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The plan is to make genetically modified drought-resistant maize, better known as corn, commercially available in these countries and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

WEMA is led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which describes itself as a nonprofit organization that acts as a bridge between those providing technologies and smallholder farmers.

Monsanto provides maize germplasm to help breeding efforts, offers technical expertise and deploys locally adapted maize hybrids. It currently donates seeds with drought-tolerance and insect-protection traits royalty-free to all seed companies in those five countries.

In a briefing paper published on its website, Monsanto said that three-quarters of the world’s most severe droughts over the past 10 years have occurred in Africa.

This, the company said, makes “farming risky for millions of smallholder farmers, most of whom are women and rely on rainfall to water their crops.”

“Maize is the most widely grown staple crop in Africa – more than 300 million Africans depend on it as their main food source. ... Maize production is severely affected by drought, which can lead to unpredictable and low yields, and at worst, complete crop failure,” the company said.

Apart from drought-resistant maize, genetically modified seeds resistant to certain insects have also been developed.

“Like drought, insects present another challenge to African farmers who often have few resources to manage them,” Monsanto said. “During drought, maize that is able to survive becomes particularly susceptible to pests, especially stem borers. This can have an even further impact on farmers’ ability to grow and harvest enough maize to feed their families.”

Earlier this year, Kenya's National Biosafety Authority granted approval for the environmental release of genetically modified maize to combat stem borers.

In a statement, Dr Eliud Kireger, of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (Kalro) and Dr Denis Kyetere, AATF executive director, said the approval will allow a move to national performance trials. These will lead to identification of suitable varieties for farmers affected by stem borers.

Smallholder farmers in Kenya already have access to the WEMA hybrid drought-resistant maize seed, which is sold under the brand name DroughtTEGO.

Insect protection is complementary to the efforts of developing more drought-tolerant maize varieties and will also be available royalty-free, Monsanto said. “This increased yield stability has the potential to help reduce hunger and improve the livelihood of millions of Africans.”

The company said the improvements could produce an estimated 2 million additional tons of food, enough to feed 14 to 21 million people. Harvest gains could also be sold to increase incomes and give farmers confidence to invest in improved farming practices, the company said.

Critics believe the project is a “Trojan horse” used by Monsanto and other biotech companies to open the door to the “proliferation of GMOs that will undermine food sovereignty.”

The South African-based African Center for Biosafety also said the continent “risks following an erroneous and misguided development intervention to alleviate hunger and mitigate the effects of climate change, in the process handing over its food systems to the private sector.”

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