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 Bayer. “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, Bayer collaborates in a public-private partnership that works on sharing a genetically modified crop called Bt maize for smallholder farmers in Africa.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that can be used to control insects and has been used by organic farmers to control caterpillars such as Fall Armyworm. Many global agencies such as World Health Organization (WHO) have also used Bt to control mosquitoes for decades. Through biotechnology, scientists can express Bt proteins in crops, helping farmers protect against insect damage and destruction. When the targeted insect eats the plant, the Bt proteins bind to specific receptors in the insect’s stomach, which ultimately kills the pest. Bt is not harmful to humans, other mammals, birds, fish, or beneficial insects, because their stomachs don’t have the same receptors and, in the case of humans, 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.”