Published on January 25, 2021 | Juliana Agbo, The Nation
The ongoing research on the TELA maize project, a new maize variety which is water-efficient, drought-tolerant and also fights insects and pest such as fall armyworm, has progressed significantly at the research farms of the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Samaru, Zaria.
The new maize variety fortified to resist pest and tolerate drought is undergoing its third Confined Field Trials (CFT) at the research farms of the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
The final stage of the CFT is to test the efficacy of the resistance to insect pests and drought-tolerant gene.
Results from of the preliminary findings from the first and second phase of the trials have shown that maize farmers in the country stand to benefit immensely when the maize is commercialised as the varieties will save farmers production cost up to hundreds of millions of naira from pesticides spray to control stem borer and the fall armyworm.
The trials are conducted under the terms and conditions set by the various government regulatory bodies to confirm the performance in compliance with the biosafety regulations.
It is projected that when approval is given by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), this year, the varieties will be evaluated in multi-location with farmers to participate in the selection of the best preferred TELA maize varieties to grow.
About TELA maize project
TELA maize is a new variety of maize which is Water Efficient, meaning that it is drought tolerant and also fights insects and pest such as Fall Armyworm.
The new variety fortified to resist pest and tolerate drought is expected to be released to farmers by 2022.
The project builds on progress made from breeding work under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).
This new variety is a work in progress, which was adopted in Nigeria in 2019, and is currently being developed in six African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ethiopia and South Africa.
The TELA maize trial is carried out in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and the IAR.
IAR having acquired a permit from the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to conduct the confined field trials, used a double-stacked maize hybrids, fortified with Bt gene (MON89034) for insect pest (maize stemborer and fall armyworm) protection and drought resistance gene (DroughtGard®, MON87460) in the trials which have proven to be quite promising.
The Nation learnt that once the trials are completed and approved, the project will avail the improved seed to maize farmers in the country that are high yielding and climate-resilient to withstand drought conditions, and produce good yield for farmers in drought-prone areas of Nigeria.
On the economic impact, the IAR said it would save the country its import bill on maize which it spends importing over 4 million metric tons of maize annually, adding that farmers will reduce the use of pesticides.
The rationale behind TELA maize project
The Executive Director of IAR, Professor Mohammad Ishiyaku, said Nigeria’s quest to introduce maize varieties resistant to insect pests such as Stem Borer, Fall Army Worm (FAW) and drought came from the experience of farmers that requires at least N46,000 naira to spray one acre (0.405 ha) of the farm each season to give good protection against the FAW.
“Unfortunately, not many farmers can afford this; and in most cases, they end up abandoning their farms to the pest,” he said.
While noting that the insects and droughts are the biggest threat to Nigeria’s food security, the executive director explained that the Nigerian agriculture is continuously being challenged with climate change, which results into two environmental conditions characterised by either shortage of rainfall, which is very much needed to grow the crop, or excessive rainfall leading to flooding of farmland.
He said the introduction of this variety to resist insect would go a long way in making maize production cheaper in Nigeria, adding that the drought-tolerant of this variety will not only provide stable production of maize but it would expand maize production to marginal areas where rainfall is not so high.
“The IAR is committed so that our agriculture is climate-smart, it must have the resilience to adjust to either of the two extreme conditions and also do very well under optimal environmental condition.
“We have released around nine different varieties, particularly six improved varieties of maize and three new varieties of sorghum. These two categories are a reflection of the continuous output of IAR. Every other year, we come out with new technologies that improve the potential of productivity of our agricultural system,” he added.
According to him, “This is to ensure the sustenance of our national food security, we have advised the government to tilt more towards dry season crop production. “We want to ensure that food items are not imported into this country, this would add value to the product of our agricultural activity, our farmers will earn what is due for them”.
While commending the federal government for making sure agriculture remain the mainstay of the economy, Professor Ishiyaku said with all the resources made available for them, IAR
scientists will be ready to face any challenge that could face the country’s agricultural system.
Speaking on the misconceptions about the application of science on crops, he called on Nigerians to contact the IAR through its helpline to get clarification concerning false information on health implications and the environment from GM crops.
“No country in the world is developing its agricultural sector without the application of science and technology. The public can always approach us through our helpline, we are always available to answer any question, IAR and other research institutes never undertake anything unethical that will harm anyone,” he added.
The lead researcher and principal investigator of the project, Professor Adamu, said IAR would write a dossier to the regulator, NBMA after the third CFT to allow them to conduct more trials outside the confinement before giving to farmers for multiplication.
According to him, “We will write a dossier to the regulator, the NBMA to allow us to conduct more trials outside the confinement, after one year, we will get the result and submit the dossier for them to allow us to take to the farmers for national multiplication trial, out of the entries, the best performing hybrids selected by farmers will be evaluated and we will submit the report to National Variety Release Committee Ibadan.
“Once they accept it that they have met the requirement for them to release the hybrid, they can be released to farmers, by December 2022, so by 2023, we will multiply the seeds and give them out. In three years, farmers should have the seed to grow.
Speaking further on the challenges experienced during the trials, he said: “COVID-19 has affected us in terms of taking out field trials in some locations, this year, we are hoping to go to more locations and approach more farmers.”
He lamented that people use social media to pass wrong information concerning the technology, thereby putting fears in the hearts of farmers and the general public.
“Nigeria is not the first country to develop genetically modified maize, we will continue to do our best to work on what is good and continue to work towards the development of our agricultural system.
“We have released some varieties last year which are non-genetically modified from the project, so two maize varieties which are high yielding and drought tolerant were released,” he said.
Explaining why the CFT trials are involved in the project, the Lead Trial and Pipeline Testing (PTP), Dr Muhyideen Oyekunle while noting that this is the third and last trial said there are different experiments involved to test the efficacy of the resistance to an insect pest, especially the Fall Armyworm and stem borer. He, however, said another experiment involved is to test the efficacy of drought-tolerant gene. He further said the crop which was planted in November 2020 will be ready for harvest by March.
Professor Ishiyaku said the intervention will greatly enhance the food security agenda of the present administration amidst the challenges posed by climate change.
He explained that the development and use of the new variety would help boost the country’s revenue in the non-oil sector of the economy.
According to him, Tela maize is being developed by genetically engineered systems to enhance reduce the cost of production associated with the use of pesticides and herbicides and tolerate atmospheric condition with little or no waterfall.
Corroborating this, the principal investigator, Professor Adamu, said the crop will be protected from the hazards compared to other less fortified varieties which will be devastated.
“Africa currently produces 7.5 per cent of the world’s maize out while Nigeria is currently responsible for the largest produces in the continent with 18 million metric tonnes in 2019 from 11 million metric tonnes in 2018. It is estimated that demand for maize will double by 2025,” he said.