Article originally published here

By Mark Edge

Insects can be both helpful and harmful to farmers growing crops. In the case of the highly invasive Fall Armyworm, they’re devastating and destructive. With no effective natural predators, this pest rapidly reproduces and causes significant crop damage, reducing the yields needed to meet a growing demand for food, fuel and fiber.

While the Fall Armyworm is commonly found in the U.S. and is a prominent pest in Brazil, it is migrating and taking its destructive nature with it. In 2016, Fall Armyworm was first spotted in West Africa and immediately caused major concerns about food security. Since then, the pest has destroyed maize—a staple food for over 300 million people—in over 30 African countries.

“Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa heavily rely on maize and produce it for direct consumption,” said Mark Edge, Director of Collaboration for Developing Countries at Monsanto. “As Fall Armyworm becomes more prevalent and established, a major food source is jeopardized.”

Genetically modified (GM) crops do not yet have regulatory approval in most African countries. To promote understanding and acceptance of a crop that could benefit so many farmers, in 2008, Monsanto entered a public-private partnership to develop Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.  Monsanto provided the royalty-free use of drought-tolerant and insect resistant maize traits to WEMA in a collaborative partnership that strives to improve food security and livelihoods among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Non-Bt vs Bt Maize after natural Fall Armyworm infestation – Uganda, January 2018

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that can be used to control insects. Through biotechnology, scientists can use Bt proteins to develop crops that help farmers protect against insect damage and destruction. When targeted insects eat the plant, the Bt proteins bind to specific receptors in the insect stomach, which ultimately kills the insect. Bt is not harmful to humans, other mammals, birds, fish, or beneficial insects, because their stomachs don’t have the same receptors and they simply break down the Bt protein into harmless amino acids. The use of Bt crops reduces the need for pesticides, helping farmers strategically and efficiently manage and use inputs. With the help of Bt maize, farmers in Africa could protect their crops from damage from Fall Armyworm and other invasive pests.

“Bt maize was introduced over 20 years ago, and has now been in South Africa for 15 years,” shared Edge. “However, Bt as an applied biological control has been around for over 50 years, and has been used around the world by farmers and gardeners as an insect control product.”

This technology has revolutionized insect pest management in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina and many other countries. It has proven to be a safe, effective way to combat pests and help ensure bountiful harvests. “When farmers plant their crop, they start with hopes to reap the full genetic potential in the seed they purchased,” said Edge. “Bt maize helps protect that genetic potential and minimizes the negative impact of insects like Fall Armyworm. It would be an excellent addition to the crop protection toolbox for farmers in Africa.”

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