Maize is widely cultivated by smallholder farmers on over 30 million hectares in sub-Saharan Africa. Maize is also a multi-purpose crop that is used for food and feeds. It is widely grown as one of the staple crops by smallholder farmers in Nigeria and contributes immensely to the food and nutrition of the populace.
However, not only humans like this food crop. Insects like the stem-borer and the recently arrived fall armyworm (FAW) also like a taste of the crop and attack it massively in the fields. Farmers lost up to 80 per cent of their yields to the ravaging FAW attack. To tackle this challenge, farmers spend fortunes on expensive insecticides to wade off the attack of the menacing insects.
Apart from insects, farmers also have to contend with the challenge of drought caused by irregular rainfall patterns due to climate change. These challenges have made planting maize a risky affair.
However, to address this challenge, researchers at the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, developed an improved maize variety, the TELA Maize, genetically modified to resist fall armyworm (FAW), stem-boring pests and tolerant to drought.
The seed, which has secured government’s approval, granted by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) on October 8, 2021, for its environmental release to farmers, is the brain-child of an international consortium coordinated by AATF, involving Bayer, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and the National Agricultural Research Systems of seven countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda) since 2018.
Speaking during the public presentation of the seed in Abuja, TELA Maize principal investigator, Prof. Rabiu Adamu, said apart from the drought which severely affects the crop, insects, stem borers and FAW wreck serious havoc on farms, adding the TELA maize was developed to tackle these challenges and enhance farmers’ productivity with regards to maize farming.
In his remarks, the IAR executive director, Prof. Ishiyaku Mohammed, said the public presentation is one of the core values at IAR, stating that apart from knowledge, innovation and discipline, the institute respects accountability and subjecting itself to the public judgment for the quality of work they do for the country, adding the TELA maize development is in response to the call of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari for the utilisation of science and technology to proffer solution to national development problems.
“We have taken up this challenge but there is no corporation or individual that can do it alone. We recognize the importance of leveraging on a supplementary capacity from our collaborators which informs our partnership with the AATF, particularly, to forge ahead while customizing the partnership to strictly reflect and answer our national aspiration.
“Let me also clearly state that Nigerians have the capacity, just like any other country, to leverage on the potentials of science and technology to move this country out of the woods of economic underdevelopment,” he added.
Earlier, the director-general of the National Biotechnology Management Agency (NABDA), Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, stressed that the future of agriculture is biotechnology.
“The future of agriculture is biotechnology. We changed the narrative using conventional means which took a while to yield results. Now, with the world’s population increasing rapidly and available land decreasing, with climate change and all that, the way forward is biotechnology. This is why the TELA maize project is very important,” he said.
Similarly, the country coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigeria, Dr. Rose Gidado, said there are a lot of benefits accruable to the use of TELA Maize, considering its drought-tolerance, high resistance to insects, the fall armyworm and stem-borer.
“Farmers are going to benefit from this, have more crop yields and have a maize variety that is protected from insects. This means empowerment; farmers will make more money profit with less risk and exposure because of the protection from insects and reduction in spraying with chemicals (instead of 10 sprays, 2 can do) which helps the health of the farmers and puts them at less risk of inhaling chemicals.
“The long-term effect of the chemicals being inhaled by farmers while they are spraying is enormous. So, it stops you from doing business farming but, with this, you can go into business farming. Even if you have a small plot, the yield is going to be enormous, their livelihood will improve enough for them to send their children to school,” she added.
In his opening remarks, the NBMA director-general, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, said the public presentation was to make the country aware of the application filed by the IAR for a permit for genetically modified maize that tolerates drought and is resistant to insect attacks.
“The maize has been genetically modified to have those abilities and the institute has applied for a permit in line with the National Biosafety Management Agency Act. This particular release is an environmental one allowed to be planted in the environment and used for consumption or other processes. It is a major decision that is about to be taken.
“We want the public to know that there is an application of this sort, even though it has been in the media. We want the applicant to make a formal presentation to the public, so you can understand what has been done, how important this crop is and what safety measures are in place to ensure the product will not be harmful to the environment and human health. The essence is for the members of the public to be aware of this and ask questions if there are doubts about this product,” he added.