How agricultural biotechnologies can contribute to food security

05Apr 2019
Gerald Kitabu
The Guardian
How agricultural biotechnologies can contribute to food security

From a distance, a perceived sound of competing pummel from the hand mill could be heard; small holder farmers of Igogo village in Igunga district, Tabora region were pounding Euphorbia tirucalli to obtain the plants’ sap to be applied on maize pests.

This is impeccable proof of devastation recently caused by fall armyworms in a maize field at Hanihani in Igunga District, Tabora Region. Photo: Correspondent Gerald Kitabu

Euphorbia tirucalli in Kiswahili is called Mnyaa. While in other areas, Euphorbia tirucalli is used as home fencing, in Igogo village small holder farmers have discovered that when crushed, the sap is used to spray on maize to kill the crop’s devastating pests including the Fall army worms.

A small holder farmer from Igogo village, Emmanuel Minoja said the farmers have been using these herbs for the third year now since the invasion of the Fall army worms in the farmers fields.

“After crashing the Euphorbia tirucalli  to get the pants’ sap, you pour 15 drops of the sap into 5-litres of water and then you shake gently to get the solution which is sprayed on the maize to kill the Fall army worms. This strategy is temporary and useful for small plots only,” he said.

According to Minoja, some farmers resorted to ashes as another strategy of preventing the pests but again, it could only paralyze them as after a short time the pests could resume and actively destroy the maize.

When invade the maize, the Fall army worms are dangerous pests, only the famers who planted in early rains have been able to get some maize compared to those who planted late.

“I personally planted four acres of maize. At least I will get something from the three acres planted earlier on, but the one acre planted later on, has been devastated by the pests. Once they attack the maize, they feed on foliage and leaves. Some of them hide in the central delicate part of the maize,” he narrated.

He further explained that generally, the entire devastation of FAW has reduced production from the previous 20 bags per acre to five bags or less than that and at times, the farmers get nothing at all.

The problem is that some small holder farmers are poor as such they don’t have modern farm equipments. So they would wait to borrow from their neighbours to cultivate their farms, the late the cultivation the many the invasion of pests, he added.

Ally Ramadhani,  cultivated 3 acres of maize but 2 acres have been affected by the FAW.  His friend, Nasoro Udoya also said that he cultivated one acre but it wa affected by both FAW and drought.

Nanga ward agro-extension officer, Ambele Mwangomo confirmed that the small holder farmers especially those who planted their maize late were facing very hard time due to multiplication of the FAW. They used several pesticides such as Duduba and Belt but all did not work out.

He said that only those who planted earlier during the first rains will harvest. Those who planted late were the main victims. They applied all sorts of traditional herbs and ashes but all strategies could not work out. Others went for pesticides but did not oust the FAW.

Commenting on maize production he said that generally, production has gone down in prone areas to the FAW. “We faced two problems here first pests and second drought. These two have affected the famers to a great extend and reduced crop production,” he said.

Many fields have been affected by the pests due to lack of regular inspection by the farmers saying the farmers should build a culture of inspecting their fields regularly so that action can be taken.

Igunga district Agricultural, Irrigation and Cooperative  Officer (DAICO) Erasto Konga explained this year the crops pests were not many compared to last year’s agricultural season. In fact the situation was bad for the farmers as some farmers could not get anything. 

“At least this year the pests including the infestation caused by FAW were little because last year it was very dangerous. The FAW affected many cereal crops such as maize. The pests also affected cotton,” 

Citing an example he said that the FAW reduced production from an average of 1 to 1.2 down to 0.6 tonnes per hectare.  “ There are some fields were badly affected by the FAW such that some farmers ended up harvesting nothing, he added.  

He said that this year, the agricultural department trained farmers in many villages on how to protect themselves from the dangerous pests. 

The pest can survive all year round due to availability of host and favourable climatic condition.  Favourable climatic condition availability of hosts throughout the year and ability to affect all stages of plant development makes the control of FAW difficult. 

The pest feeds on more than 80 host plants and crops including cereals, pulses and horticultural crops that are important staple food and cash crops

It is reported  to have spread in more than 15 regions including the major maize growing areas in the Southern highlands, Northern, Lake, Western and Eastern agricultural zones.

Contacted for comments on the FAW, a researcher in plant entomology, under the plant protection division of Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TIPRI)  Maneno Chidege said the fight against FAW is an endless battle as it is here to stay. Therefore, it is important for the farmers to control the pests at very early larva stages instead of waiting until it gets to late when  the insect establishes itself and goes deep in the funnel.


He said Systematic insecticides with the active ingredients emamectin benzoate is the best choice especially for late instars. But numerous active ingredients do very well against early instars, he added.

Recently, a senior Agriculture research officer Juliana Payovela said that besides enhanced food security and income generation, the farmers would get an oppotunity to utilize land effectively if they opted technologies as advised by agricultural officers . 

“Currently, the farmers are confined in small areas because some don’t see the benefits of agriculture because they use old methods and old technologies but if they use technologies, they will like to expand their maize fields,” she said.She said that Chollima-Dakawa has been conducting research in maize and currently new maize varieties are being developed that will be suitable to low land and medium altitude areas of Tanzania.

“We are disseminating improved technologies to the farmers. We developed agronomical package for maize varieties, training of farmers on maize field management and provides advices to the farmers.

Farmers should always understand that developed technologies are useful to them and should be practiced so that they increase yield,” she added.

According to the former chief research officer at costech,  Dr. Nicolas Nyange, Tanzania has more than 45 million according to 2012 census. About 80 percent of the entire population depends on agriculture as their main source of income and economy. But because of poor agricultural technologies has caused the contribution of agriculture to the gross domestic product to be only 24 percent, a situation which force many farmers live under abject poverty.He said agriculture development is faced with many constraints. There are constraints related to technologies and which are not related to technologies. 

Why Biotechnology is important in agriculture 

Dr. Nyange said that biotechnology has many opportunities in Tanzania not only in agriculture but also in other sectors such as health and environment. Biotechnology is a set of tools that uses living organisms or parts of organisms to make or modify a product, improve plants, trees or animals, or develop microorganisms for specific uses. Agricultural biotechnology is the term used in crop and livestock improvement through biotechnology tools.  It is important to understand that all living organisms have the ability to improve themselves through natural means in order to adapt to changing environmental conditions. However, it takes hundreds of years before any detectable improvement is obtained.

Scientists then learned how to domesticate and breed plants in order to develop crops to own liking and needs using various means including biotechnology. He said that there is a need for developing genetically modified maize (GMO), a technology that gives solution to maize diseases in many countries around the world such as maize necrosis lethal disease and maize stalk borers. 

Citing an example, he said that genetic engineering has increased production of cotton in South Africa, Sudan, and Burkinafaso. The technology has also improved production of maize in South Africa. This is substantiated by renown plant breeder who is based in Burkinafaso, Dr.  Valentin Traore.

““At home in Burkinafaso, farmers had similar challenges of pests and diseases but we decided to go for biotechnology, we have now limited the infestation and the farmers have increased production,” he said.He said that currently, it is very difficult for the farmers to avoid the upsurge of crop pests and diseases because they are from nature. To rescue the crops, the farmers should go for the latest technologies and well researched, improved varieties.

While the demands for biotechnology interventions are numerous, Tanzania needs to prioritize and invest in GM technologies that have shown success in other developing countries. 

According to the research scientist Dr. Emmarold Mneney, the GM technologies that focus on the main staples, can reduce use of pesticides for maize and other cash crops, resilient to effects of climate change and cost effective. Dr. Emmarold Mneney said that no country on earth has developed without deploying, harnessing and utilizing science, technology and innovation (STI) 

By harnessing science and technology, African countries have a stronger chance of addressing food and nutrition insecurity, poverty, climate change challenges

Biotechnology as a tool can provide new opportunities for achieving productivity gains in agriculture, health, food and environment. As such, Tanzania as part of the rapid developing world cannot isolate from the advancement of science, technology and innovation (STI). 

During the last three decades, conventional biotechnologies including tissue culture, diagnostics and molecular marker technologies have produced vast numbers of useful products that have contributed to higher productivity and household income in many countries. 

Of recent, modern biotechnology or genetic modification (GM) technology has been used to generate products that offer several benefits to human kind such as more effective drugs and food additives; more nutritional dairy and other products; more resilient and productive crops and tree species.

Adoption of genetically modified crops

According to Dr. Mneney, between 1996 and 2016 (a period of 21 years), a total of fourteen countries have been conducting field trials of different crops. For example, Cameroon is conducting field trials on cotton, Ethiopia doing field trials in cotton, Ghana conducting field trials in cotton, cowpeas, rice, sweet potato and Kenya doing field trials in cassava, cotton, maize, sorghum and potato.

Other countries include Malawi which is conducting field trials in cotton, cowpea and banana and Mozambique doing similar trials in Maize. Nigeria is conducting field trials in cotton cowpea, rice, sorghum whereas South Africa has already released GM maize. 

Uganda is conducting field trials in banana, cotton, cassava, maize, rice, and Potato and Egypt is conducting field trials in cotton, potato, wheat, cucumber, melon. Swaziland is conducting field trials in cotton, and Zimbambwe in Cotton.

Field trials in Tanzania

The government through a collaborative project, “Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)” established in 2009 a confined field trial (CFT) site at Makutopora-Dodoma for conducting GM research. The CFT site was used for evaluating the efficiency in water use of drought tolerant and insect resistant GM maize varieties under local drought stress conditions in Tanzania. The first trial was completed successfully in April 2017  and statistics were taken and recorded for the next trials.  

Genetic transformation activities were also initiated in Tanzania in early 2011 after the establishment of Biosafety level II laboratory at Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute. The on-going research activities at MARI include development of cassava varieties tolerant to cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

 Benefits of GM Crops

According to Dr. Mneney, on average GM technology adoption has reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. However, lack of GM seed availability in the region and poor market access were possible limitations to the adoption and spread of the technologyGM crops in the world

According to Dr. Mneney, Brazil has 49.1  million hectares  of Soybean, Maize, cotton,  Argentina has  23.8 million hectares of  Soybean, Maize, cotton, Canada has 11.6 million hectares of Soybean, maize, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa  where as India has 10.8 million hectares of  cotton.

Paraguay has 3.6 million hectares of Soybean, maize and cotton, Pakistan has 2.9 hectares of cotton, China has 2.8 million hectares of cotton, papaya and poplar. South Africa has 2.7 million hectares of Soybean, maize, cotton and Uruguay has 1.3 million hectares of Soybean and maize. 

He explained that GM is simply a powerful technology, and its impact will depend entirely on how it is used. The application of GM technology, in conjunction with conventional approaches, can play a major role in helping the society. “Malnutrition and Climate change are daunting challenges facing the mankind. We cannot feed Africa and indeed the world of tomorrow with old technologies. There is a need for strategic investment in proven biotechnologies.