Climate Story Jeffrey Gogo
One Chipinge farmer, a Mrs Mhlanga, pointed to the discolouration in the leaves of her pineapple fruit and blamed it on Roundup, a popular herbicide made by the big US seed and chemical company, Monsanto plc. Mhlanga appeared to make light of the damage by the weed killer to a fairly large part of her plantation at Mt Selinda, during a prime time farming programme on local television the night of May 17.
Of course, she is likely to wouldn’t have known the extent to which Roundup can cause cancers, or other ecological ills, as asserted by new scientific research, particularly that of French molecular biologist Gilles Eric Seralini.
Monsanto plc doesn’t want farmers to know of such risks, those in the back-wafers of Zimbabwe’s farming hierarchy, especially.
It will be bad for business.
But Glyphosate – the key ingredient in the herbicide trading as Roundup – is the same chemical found in seeds engineered, principally by Monsanto plc, to tolerate it.
They are called genetically modified seeds (GMs), ostensibly built to resist disease and pests, and are widely grown in industrialised countries like the United States.
South Africa is the only country to have legalised GMs in Africa.
So, when the invasive American moth called fall armyworm laid waste to thousands of hectares of croplands in Africa last year, the usual GM advocates, led by Monsanto plc, escalated their push for the adoption of genetically modified seed, as a panacea to the new pest problem.
It could have been an easy sale, really.
There is as yet no known chemical or natural method, scientifically proven to work against the fall armyworm, effectively.
Farmers and governments across southern Africa have used a combination of interventions, with some success.
Now, a new study in East Africa finds that intercropping could reduce crop damage from the fall armyworm by about 83 percent and boost maize yields upto three and half times more.
In Chipinge, Mrs Mhlanga already intercrops pineapples with maize, and then adds her Roundup.
That’s basically what researchers at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an anti-poverty global charity, have found in their six-month field study of about 250 small farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda — but without the GM-linked glyphosate.
The researchers have adapted an earlier version of a technology called the “push – pull technology”, which has been used over the past 20 years to control other familiar cereal crop pests like the stemborers.
Built to cope with the changes in climates, the updated version of the push – pull technology works by intercropping maize with drought-tolerant legumes such as cowpeas, “and planting an attractive trap plant, such as Napier grass, as a border crop around this intercropped field”.
The legumes and the grass act as the “push” and “pull” crops, respectively, releasing chemical substances that either repel the attacking moth, or attract them towards a deadly fate.
“Results from field implementation of this technology indicate that it effectively limits stem-borer infestation . . . resulting in significant increases in maize grain yields. . . . ” the researchers say.
“These results demonstrate that the technology is effective in controlling fall armyworm . . . and represent the first documentation of a technology that can be immediately deployed for management of the pest in East Africa and beyond”
More than 130,000 hectares of maize were damaged by the fall armyworm in Zimbabwe last year, Government data shows. But the figure has dropped to just 15, 000ha this year. There is no single explanation to this decline.
Farmers have tried several methods to control the worm, including the application of ash or washing powder into the funnel of the maize crop, a staple diet.
Others applied contact pesticides commonly used on the familiar African armyworm or the stalk-borer, with little success.
A Special Alert from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in February seemed to suggest that too much rain earlier on in 2018 “may have contributed to the containing of the fall armyworm.”
For Mhlanga, the Chipinge farmer, pineapples may not necessarily do well as an intercrop, should she decide to concentrate on maize.
But ICIPE’s latest climate – adapted push – pull technology may be crucial to effectively controlling the invading American moth here and elsewhere.
“The method is effective in controlling the fall armyworm, providing an accessible, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective strategy for management of the pest,” said Claire Robinson, editor of the online magazine gmwatch.
“Push-pull also controls maize ear rots and mycotoxins, while improving soil health and providing high quality fodder, since the companion crops are superior forages. Therefore, the technology facilitates crop-livestock integration thus expanding farmers’ income streams,” she said in an opinion piece.
The fall army worm was detected in Southern Africa for the first time around January of 2017.
It is about this time that it may have entered Zimbabwe.
God is faithful.