Saturday, July 13, 2024

The TELA Maize Project

photo by anteneh aklilu


The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) oversaw the initiative that saw Nigeria introduce its four TELA maize GMO hybrid varieties for commercial release on June 11th. A comparable experiment that aims to produce fruit in a year is likewise underway in Ethiopia.

Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, the TELA Maize Project’s project manager at AATF, sat down with Capital’s Muluken Yewondwossen to talk about the latest success in Nigeria and the situation in Ethiopia. In addition to many more years of experience, Dr. Sylvester Oikeh has over 30 years of multidisciplinary expertise in research-for-development initiatives, including project planning. He began working with AATF in 2009 as a project manager for the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project, which is now known as the TELA Maize Project. In this role, he oversees the execution of projects spanning 10 public and private sector organizations in seven African nations, as well as coordinating their operational management.

He worked in Africa Rice Centre for five years as a Principal Scientist/Soil-Fertility Agronomist and Project Leader. He also held various positions at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) for over ten years. Furthermore, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA, where he established for the first time the link between enhanced iron and zinc in maize grains with improvement in human nutrition using an in vitro technique (model gut-system). Dr. Oikeh has over 90 publications in major scientific journals, proceedings, book chapters, books, and monographs.

Capital: Why does AATF want to be involved in this project?

Dr. Sylvester Oikeh: People asked me why Tela. And the answer is, there was a call for AATF when we were formed, 20 years ago. But there is a problem: farmers are always saddened because of climate change. The issue of drought – a farmer plants maize, applies fertilizer, does some weeding, and does insect protection – and at the end of the day, they lose the crop and they have spent money to buy seed.

If you lose that next year, you are reluctant to buy seed; and if the crop has survived drought, there is the pest that comes in to ravage it. This pest is called stem borer, and then in 2016, another bigger borer called fall armyworms – that one is even more ravaging.

In fact, it can even feed on stem borers themselves. The crop is completely lost and African farmers are losing a lot of money – millions of dollars – to this pest.

So the idea was how do we solve this problem; the problem of drought due to climate change and prevention of insect pests. So we started a partnership in 2008 to address this. When we started, we focused on drought only. After the first ten years of the project, we developed up to 120 drought-tolerant materials, which we call drought TEGO.In Ethiopia, three crops have been approved for cultivation. One interesting observation is that these crops are both drought tolerant and have good yields. However, it has been noticed that when these crops are drought tolerant, other vegetation suffers, making them more attractive to pests. As a result, the farmers lose value. In one of our trials in South Africa, conducted on a five-hectare plot with no rainfall for three months, we tested the crops’ drought tolerance. We withheld water for a period of five weeks, from two weeks before flowering to three weeks after flowering. Surprisingly, the maize crop survived. Unfortunately, in another trial on a five-hectare plot, our crops were infested with stem borers, leading to the loss of the entire trial.

Recognizing this as a problem for our farmers, we sought a solution. By genetically engineering the drought tolerant material, we can introduce insect protection and thus prevent the loss of value. We inserted a gene that provides insect protection and another gene for drought tolerance into maize. Subsequently, we began evaluating the crops. Recently, in Nigeria, we celebrated the successful development of maize crops that are both drought tolerant and protected from insects, which we named Tela, meaning protection. This is in contrast to conventionally developed maize, known as drought Tego, meaning shield. Tela maize offers shielded and protected crops against insects, and this is the product we celebrated last week.

The advantages of this maize are significant. For example, we have launched the SAMMAZ series, which guarantees farmers higher yields, with the potential to reach up to ten tons, as opposed to the average three tons. Furthermore, the advantage extends beyond yield. Normally, farmers have to spray their crops every two weeks with various chemicals for protection against pests. However, with this genetically engineered maize, spraying is unnecessary, as the insects feeding on the crop die due to the inserted gene.

Overall, this genetically engineered maize offers both higher yields and reduced pest control efforts for farmers.

Capital: How much do they save on expenses for pesticides?

Oikeh: For example, I know that in Kenya and other places, the amount spent in Ethiopia is higher. In Kenya, they spend an extra USD 120 per hectare on chemicals. When we conducted the estimation in Ethiopia, farmers spent up to USD 250 to USD 300 to buy different chemicals.

Apart from the cost reduction in buying chemicals, there are hazards associated with the use of chemicals. Sometimes, when we don’t use them properly, they pose health hazards. Sometimes, the chemicals contaminate the water we drink, which is not good for us.

If the crop is left unproductive and we consume it, it can carry aflatoxin, a toxin from fungal attacks that can cause cancer.

Therefore, the maize that we are promoting has higher yield, protects against insects, saves more money, and is healthier for the public to consume compared to the conventional materials that farmers have been using.

So, it’s a triple advantage that we are bringing to our farmers, and it’s a good beginning.

Capital: In how many countries are you working on the same project and what are the results?

Oikeh: Let me mention that initially, we conducted these studies in seven countries, but we had to pause in two countries, Uganda and Tanzania, in 2020 because they do not have the regulations that allow for the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) crops.

However, Ethiopia does have the necessary regulations, so we are currently working in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, and South Africa.

In 2016, South Africa released five varieties for their farmers. Currently, smallholder farmers in Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces, similar to farmers in Ethiopia, are benefiting from this Tela product.

Regarding progress in Ethiopia, we are currently not conducting the final stage of variety testing, which is called the variety verification trial. These trials involve working with farmers so that they can select the varieties they prefer. That is the stage we are currently at in Ethiopia.

We hope that after this season’s trial, Ethiopia will identify Tela materials that they can also release next year for their farmers. Our dream is to reconvene in Ethiopia at this time next year to celebrate the use of Tela materials in Ethiopia.

In Mozambique, we hope to reconvene at the end of this year, just like we did in Nigeria last week, to approve the release of the varieties. We are waiting for the current trials in Mozambique to be harvested, and then the results will be packaged and submitted for variety release.

After Mozambique, we will hand over to Ethiopia next year.

As for Kenya, we are not certain of the situation due to ongoing court cases. We do not know how long these court cases will take. The cases revolve around the ban on GM crops.

While the government lifted the ban in 2022, stating that GM crops are safe, the opposition filed various cases in court. Until these cases are resolved, we are unsure when we will receive approval in Kenya. But I can bet you that I will be coming to Ethiopia this time next year to celebrate with you and approve of it.

Capital: How can the Kenyan government prevent its farmers from accessing GM maize seeds from Ethiopia if the Ethiopian government commercializes the varieties?

Oikeh: That’s it! That is not my business or the business of Ethiopia. Farmers in Kenya go and buy seeds from Seed Company in Ethiopia and grow their crops. This Tela maize is specifically meant for Ethiopia. So if farmers go to Ethiopia and buy it, that is not my concern, and it is not the concern of the Ethiopian government. It is a free market and it will happen.

That is why the government of Kenya must ensure that we have the law in place. We have everything we need, so let it proceed in a legal manner. Because if we don’t, it could come through illegal means since we cannot prevent farmers who share a border with Ethiopia from going there and buying the seed. When they see farmers successfully growing clean crops, they will naturally want to ask them where they bought their seed and then follow the same route.

This situation has occurred both in Brazil and Argentina many years ago. Brazil declared that they did not want to grow GM crops, while Argentina expressed a desire to grow GM crops. As a result, GM farmers in Brazil went to buy seeds from companies in Argentina and started growing them.

Every five years, the Brazilian government would renew the GM ban. Then, the Brazilian government conducted a study which revealed that 75% of the farmers in Brazil were buying seeds from Argentina. So they quickly implemented a law and opened the system. As a result, today, the top five countries growing GM crops in the world are the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and India.

Capital: What would be the acceptance from the farmers in Nigeria and elsewhere?

Oikeh: Those farmers who have done the trial, they ate it. What happens to people who say this is not safe?

Then I ask them a question: this product, the GM product that you say is not safe, is being consumed in Europe. They don’t grow it, but they buy it from Brazil, Argentina, or from different parts of the world. America, Asia, or South America, they are eating it.

But when it comes to Africa, you say it’s not safe for Africans. Does it mean that this product is selectively harmful to some and not to others? That is the question I ask them. Most of those who are opposing GM are coming from Europe. Europe is not growing it, but they are consuming it.

So will you say the problem is safety? The problem cannot be safety. Because if we ask why Europe is eating from Argentina, can Ethiopian farmers/government afford to bring all the food they are going to feed Ethiopian people from Argentina or Brazil, as Europe is doing? The answer is no.

So we must produce our own crop. So the issue is not safety. It is business. I do see safety because for the past 25 or more years, South Africa, not too far away, has been growing GM. Has the population of South Africa gone down? Have the South African people become sicker compared to when they did not grow GM 20 years ago? The answer is no.

So there are people who tell our government this product is not safe. And they demonize it for their own interests, not for the interests of the African farmer. So to me, as an African, African governments must wake up and embrace this technology to help solve the problem of food insecurity.

In Europe, they tell their farmers not to grow crops. They say that they can import. They can even pay their farmers not to grow crops and then import from Argentina and Brazil.

So we must encourage our farmers to embrace this technology that is safe for our people.

Capital: What about affordability?

Oikeh: Already, eight companies in Nigeria have taken a license from us to both grow and market, or to market alone, because the hybrid varieties they need to grow are different from the open-pollinated varieties they have been growing.

So they must learn how to grow, even though they are seed companies. So if you don’t have the skills to grow the hybrid varieties, what you can do is have another company produce them for you, and then you can market them to your farmers. So right here, you can see some seed companies – eight of them have collected licenses, and among the eight, I think three to four are able to produce, while the others can market. The price naturally should be slightly higher. Why am I saying that? It’s because of the technology we obtained from Bayer, one of our partners, royalty-free. This means we don’t have to pay a technology fee, so there won’t be any extra cost. Seed companies will grow and sell the crop in the same way they sell their hybrids. Therefore, we don’t expect the price to be significantly higher than what they are currently charging.

However, since this is a premium crop that farmers won’t need to spray, the cost of spraying is reduced. This will result in a slightly higher price. When we asked smallholder farmers in South Africa whether they would be willing to pay a slightly higher amount, they told us they are ready to pay up to 20% more than the normal price because they see the benefits. If someone doesn’t see the benefit, would they still be willing to pay the extra 20%?

So, I want to clarify that the actual price will remain the same, but it may seem higher due to the fact that the technology fee has already been paid through the royalty-free agreement.

Capital: What about the availability of the seeds?

Oikeh: The availability will depend on the number of seed companies willing to do business. Some companies we have spoken to are hesitant because they have concerns about the safety of the crop. That’s not a problem. Those who are willing can try it out by planting it on a small plot of their land.

If they see that it effectively protects against insects, they will be more inclined to adopt it in the future.

So, if you decide to adopt it and all your farmers start growing it, the company will see there is a demand and will produce more seeds. Seed companies are interested in entering this business, and farmers are eager to use improved seeds like this one, rather than recycled grain. We want to discontinue the use of recycled grain in Africa. I am particularly pleased with Ethiopia because 85% of the farmers there already use hybrids. However, in Nigeria, less than 10-15% are using hybrids, and that’s what we aim to change.

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