WEMA’S Bt Maize & Fall Armyworm Africa claims are unscientific and unsubstantiated

Press Release from the African Centre for Biodiversity

Johannesburg, June 27

A new research paper BT Maize and the Fall Armyworm in Africa: Debunking industry claims published by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) today, debunks unsubstantiated and unscientific claims made by the biotech machinery, especially the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project, that Bt maize is a solution to combat the fall armyworm (FAW) pest. According to Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the ACB, “The advent of the FAW in Africa has given proponents of genetic modification (GM) technologies renewed impetus to push for the commercialisation of GM crops—especially Bt maize—expressing Monsanto’s insecticidal Bt toxins to combat the pest. However, requests from the ACB for data to substantiate these claims have not thus far been provided. Nor have any such data been published in peer-reviewed studies or any other publicly available format that would allow for independent scrutiny by scientists and the public.”

The fall armyworm (FAW) Spodoptera frugiperda, is a moth pest native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas and was first observed in the African continent in 2016, in Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe. It has since spread to most sub-Saharan countries where it has posed significant risks to food crop production through yield loss. The armyworm possibly came to the continent via anthropomorphic activities such as commercial flights, travellers, imported agricultural commodities, and long-distance dispersal via wind patterns across the Atlantic.

The WEMA project has been called out by the ACB for promoting a privatised food system that will increase farmer costs while making unsubstantiated claims of food safety and security and efficacy. Outrageous claims are now being made that current field trials conducted by the WEMA project in Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique on so-called drought-resistant and insect-resistant GM maize are showing efficacy against the FAW. Claims range from Bt maize providing either ‘partial’ or ‘strong’ protection’ that successful results were ‘unexpected’ from a technology that is a ‘sure solution’ with ‘demonstrated efficacy.’

These claims are echoed by the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) ‘Feed the Future’ project, African scientists associated with the WEMA project, the Gates Foundation funded African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) and Cornell University and Monsanto/industry-funded International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Indeed, the ISAAA claims that Kenyans are on “the brink of starvation,” lest they have access to this technology. Emails to ISAAA requesting evidence to back up claims made in their articles have been pointedly ignored.

The ACB’s report has thoroughly critiqued these unverified claims, analysing published data, and reports from the Americas where it is a major pest. It has found that GM crops have been far from sure solutions, but instead, have become rapidly ineffective in many cases due to FAW resistance to GM traits. Resistance is rendering Bt crops futile in Brazil where Bt maize is widely grown on millions of hectares.

According to Sabrina Masinjila, advocacy and outreach officer with the ACB, based in Tanzania, “The lack of scientific data deny full and proper public participation in the approval process for commercialisation of GM crops, as stipulated in the UN Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety to which all WEMA countries are signatories. Crucially, it questions the scientific rigour and ethics of the project that is intended ostensibly to benefit small-holder farmers across the region. “

The push for the commercialisation of GMOs as a solution to the FAW is yet another Trojan horse, being used to open up African countries to GM crops. A solution that claims to be on the side of modern science but not backed up by rigorous scientific results and analysis and available for public and independent scientific analysis, must be rejected.

The ACB calls on African governments to implement holistic strategies, which are already showing efficacy in the field, to support small-holder farmers. These include various agro-ecological strategies such as the intercropping, the ‘push-pull’ system and integrated pest management strategies. These are being implemented in both the Americas and Africa and provide sustainable solutions to the FAW and will not further indebt farmers, compromise their health or that of their surrounding environment. 

Ends

Contact: ACB’s communications officer Fatima Gabru at, fatima@acbio.org.za

Notes to Editors:

  1. The FAW caterpillar or larva is regarded as a pest due to their highly polyphagous behaviour, feeding on a recorded 100 plant species including its preferred plants: maize, rice and sorghum, as well as sugarcane, cotton, millet, groundnut, soybean, potato and other vegetable crops. They are highly migratory, with female moths travelling 100 km a night, allowing the pest to spread rapidly.
  2. The Water Efficient Maize (WEMA) for Africa is a project whose goals are to produce drought tolerant (DT) hybrid and GM drought tolerant and Bt varieties of maize seed. Primarily the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) fund it. It does so under the guise of philanthropic intentions to provide solutions to small-holder farmers facing the very real threat of climate change in several African countries including, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania and more recently, Ethiopia. See further: FAQs on Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). Available here

For the full paper please click on link below