In October this year (2021), Africa recorded a milestone in crop biotech development when the Federal Government of Nigeria granted environmental approval for evaluation and open cultivation of TELA Maize, a new maize variety genetically modified to tolerate moderate drought and resist the fall armyworm and stem borer. This development places Nigeria one step closer to commercializing the biotech maize and becoming the second African county after South Africa to do so. The TELA Maize Project is a public-private partnership led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) working towards the commercialization of transgenic drought-tolerant and insect-protected (TELA®) maize varieties to enhance food security in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr. Oikeh shares his valuable experience, insights, and lessons from years of research and development into this improved climate smart TELA maize.
- Tell us more about the TELA Maize Project?
TELA Maize Project is being implemented by ten partner organizations; AATF, Bayer Crop Science (private sector), CIMMYT, and the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) of seven counties: Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda since 2018.
The project builds on progress made and lessons learnt from a decade of excellent breeding work done under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project.
The WEMA Phase covered development and deployment of both conventional and transgenic products, but in the TELA phase, the focus is only on the transgenics, genetically modified (GM) maize. So far, five insect-resistant (Bt) TELA® maize hybrids have been released and commercialized to smallholder farmers in South Africa since 2016. They are already making impact in controlling the invasive fall armyworm pest and stem borer.
- As the Manager of the TELA Maize Project, how do you feel now following the recent approval of TELA maize for evaluation and open cultivation in Nigeria?
The recent approval in Nigeria is the best thing that has happened to the TELA project because the country only joined the partnership in 2019 and by 2021, we got environmental release to allow for open cultivation. This is very encouraging and sends very good signals to other project countries and to Africa, that Nigeria has embraced GM technology to address its food and nutrition security. We hope that other countries will follow Nigeria’s footsteps.
- What does this approval mean for Nigeria?
TELA maize heralds a myriad of benefits. For instance, at the current cost of insecticides alone excluding spraying costs, Nigeria spends 268 billion Naira (over USD 600 million) annually importing chemicals to protect maize against the fall armyworm ravaging fields. A huge amount of this will be saved with the use of TELA maize varieties when approved for commercialization. It has been estimated that if just ten percent (10%) of Nigerian farmers adopt TELA maize after commercial approval, it will give additional cost-benefit of 58 billion Naira (more than USD 140 million) annually to the country because of the yield advantage of 19 percent recorded from the confined field trials.
- What key lessons can the rest of Africa learn from Nigeria’s approval of TELA maize?
Nigeria’s biotech policy and regulatory landscape is favorable, and thus key in advancing crop biotech development in the country. The biosafety regulatory review process for TELA maize was evidence-based, guided by the law and very timely. It happened within two months. But in some other countries, the review process has been extremely slow, though partly due to COVID-19 pandemic and change of government.
One other key lesson is political goodwill. There must be political goodwill from top-down. It is not just enough to have regulations in place, there also must be a top-down messaging indicating that government wants this technology because it will enhance food security. So, political goodwill is imperative. African governments need to embrace agricultural biotechnology and support it because genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been scientifically proven to be safe and presents huge benefits including enhanced food security. They can also learn that we need strong team spirit from all those involved in the technology; from regulators to the end-user (consumer). The South African experience of the many welfare benefits that the country has achieved with GM white maize, is a good example to learn from. African governments therefore have the responsibility to make their decisions based on what is beneficial for their people and not on what happens in other regions, especially in Europe where GM commodities are imported for food and feed consumption but grown by only two countries.
- What would you say were key challenges you faced in the journey from inception of the research to approval?
One big challenge was the heightened anti-GM technology activism spreading disinformation. For example, when Nigeria approved TELA maize for open cultivation, the anti-GM disinformed the public that Nigeria has approved TELA maize that was rejected in Kenya and USA. We all know this is false, but they always get away with such disinformation for their personal gains. Notably, we have made great strides in dissuading such disinformation especially through the efforts of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa.
- What is one key thing that kept you moving despite these challenges?
The thought of seeing TELA maize varieties doing well in the fields in comparison with other maize varieties susceptible to pests, played a key role in keeping me going. The smiles on farmers’ faces when they saw much better yields from our confined field trials compared to their own harvests, gave me the feeling to strive much harder trusting that there soon would be a breakthrough as witnessed in Nigeria. Soon, farmers will be growing this maize variety and giving testimonies of the technology and how it is changing their lives. I longed to see this happen and it gave me the drive to keep going. I am persuaded beyond doubt, about the benefits of this technology and still have a burning desire to see farmers in Africa adopting biotech crops and reaping these benefits because GM technology is a game changer for African farmers.
- What advice would you give to Principal Investigators and project teams working on biotech maize and other biotech crops across Africa?
We need strong team spirit from all those involved. From the regulators to the product’s end-users. Carry all the stakeholders along in the journey, from farmers to the media. For instance, in Nigeria, we invited farmers and the press among other stakeholders to the confined field trials (CFTs) and in Kenya, to the national performance trials (NPTs) to see for themselves what they stand to gain from the technology. There is also the need to liaise and work together in synchrony. You must learn to accommodate the views of others because of the goals that you collectively have to timely achieve. The product you are working on is never complete until you have farmers using and benefiting from it. In our case, we had various teams including product development, regulatory, deployment, seed systems and the advocacy and communications teams among others, all working together to come up with compelling products that will make a difference in the lives of maize farmers. We had regular cross-cutting discussions on project activities, supported each other; and created an interrelationship between teams to move together towards our common goal of securing traits deregulation and initiating product commercialization in project countries.
In addition to these, we also need goodwill, perseverance in advocating for the technology, and persistent messaging on the technology’s safety and benefits to farmers.
- With this approval, when can farmers expect to cultivate TELA maize?
With this approval in Nigeria, we shall commence multi-location advanced yield trials in both on-station and on-farm starting from 2022. When government and farmers see the benefits of the technology, we hope to get commercial approval of TELA hybrids for farmers to start growing in 2023.
- With the success achieved in Nigeria, Kenya is now next in line as the application awaits Cabinet decision before approval. If you had a chance to address the Kenyan Cabinet, what would you tell them?
I’ll only show them a picture that I have, which depicts the difference that this technology makes when adopted. The picture shows what farmers are currently reaping compared to what they potentially stand to get. And the difference is very big and clear. The choice would be up to them; whether they want Kenyan farmers to continue getting meagre yields from their maize farms or adopt the technology and get way better yields to contribute to the country’s desire to attain food security.
Dr. Sylvester Oikeh is AATF’s TELA Maize Project Manager. You can reach him at email@example.com