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Traits in Agriculture » Drought Tolerance

Title: Current Status of the Water Efficient Maize in Africa (WEMA) Project
Publication date: September 19, 2017
Posting date: September 19, 2017



Dear Friends and Colleagues

Current status of the Water Efficient Maize in Africa (WEMA) project

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has done a scoping study to appraise the current status of the roll-out of a public-private partnership which forms the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project in five African countries: Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. The partnership is between the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Monsanto and the National Agricultural Research Agencies (NARs). The purpose of WEMA is to develop drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties using both conventional advanced plant breeding and biotechnology.

Monsanto has donated the insect resistance transgenes (MON 89034) to the WEMA project in South Africa, where resistance to MON 810 has developed. It however donated the MON 810 event to the other four WEMA countries where it is being field-trialed. MON 87460 (drought-tolerance) was donated to all five WEMA countries via the NARs. Monsanto also recently submitted an application in South Africa for approval of the commercial release of the MON 87460 x NK 603 x MON 89034 stacked event which combines drought tolerance, insecticidal activity and herbicide tolerance.

While drought is a serious challenge for African farmers, it is clear from the report that the WEMA project deserves closer scrutiny, not least for the possibility that it will be used to facilitate the expansion of GM crops into Africa. We reproduce below the Key Findings of the study.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
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The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB)
August 2017

Key Findings

• Much like the Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) programme (which terminated in 2015) and its successor, the Stress-Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) programme, the WEMA project falls within broader endeavours which have been underway for over two decades. These efforts aim to build a private sector-driven seed industry in Africa and spread the adoption of hybrid maize varieties. Hybrid seeds are capturing African markets at a rapid pace and represent an average of 57% of maize seed grown on the continent (Abate et al. 2017).

• Significant links exist between the DTMA and WEMA projects: “CIMMYT has used conventionally derived DT (drought tolerant) maize germplasm from the DTMA project and other earlier projects for developing improved maize varieties under the WEMA project.1]

• Non-GM conventional hybrids deployed under WEMA are DT white maize varieties. The WEMA claims that a total of 70 conventional hybrid maize varieties have been developed and are available across the WEMA countries. However, this does not mean that all registered WEMA conventional hybrids are commercialised. Our research established that, at this stage, only a handful of these varieties had been rolled out to farmers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

• To the best of our knowledge, in Kenya, a total of 48 WEMA varieties were officially released between 2013 and 2017, but only one variety (WE 1011) can be found on the shelves of seed companies. In Mozambique, among the 18 DT hybrid maize varieties identified in the first phase of the WEMA project, three varieties were selected for release (WE 2101, WE 3128 and WE 3127). These are waiting for final approval from the National Committee of Variety before commercialisation. In South Africa, a total of 12 WEMA varieties appear on the variety list (2016). Of these, WE 3127 and WE 3128 were released in September 2014. These varieties are still being bulked up before their large-scale commercial release in 2017. In Tanzania, of the 11 WEMA conventional maize hybrids released, only one variety (WE 2109) has been multiplied,

sold and grown by farmers (Kitabu 2016). In Uganda, where a total of 10 WEMA conventional hybrids are said to have been released, three of these (WE 2106, WE 2115 and WE 2114) appear to be commercially available.

• With regard to the GM component of the project, WEMA focuses on the development of DT and insect resistance. Although two companies are involved in the GM component, the general literature refers only to Monsanto. In 2007, BASF (a German chemical company) and Monsanto announced their collaboration in plant biotechnology to develop crops that are more tolerant to adverse environmental conditions. BASF and Monsanto are “jointly donating to the WEMA partners up to four commercial track drought tolerance transgenic events from their collaboration” (AATF 2017f: 2). (Our research could not establish the contribution by BASF to the project.) These DT events are then introgressed into conventional hybrids developed under WEMA.

• Monsanto is said to have donated the insect resistance transgenes (MON 89034) to the WEMA project in South Africa, where resistance to MON 810 has developed. Monsanto has also donated the MON 810 trait to the other four WEMA countries (Agricultural Research Council (ARC),

2016). MON 87460 (drought-tolerant) was donated to all five WEMA countries via the National Agricultural Research Agencies (NARs). These include: The South African ARC; the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH); the Mozambican Agrarian Research Institute (IIAM); the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO); and the

Ugandan National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO). These agencies are responsible for management of WEMA processes in-country, with support from the AATF which remains responsible for granting (non-exclusive) rights to seed companies in these countries.

• South Africa’s biosafety authorities granted approval of MON 89034 as early as 2010. In all other WEMA countries, MON 8010 is currently undergoing confined field trials (CFTs). MON 87460 (a DT event) is also under CFTs in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and CFTs are about to begin in Mozambique. The stacked event MON 810 and MON 87460, which is “generated by conventional crossing from two parental lines, i.e. MON 87460 and MON 810” (COSTECH et al. 2017), is also undergoing CFTs in Kenya. Submissions for testing of this stacked event were approved in Uganda in 2016 (Landu 2016) and have just been submitted in Tanzania (COSTECH et al. 2017).

• Incorporation of an insect resistance component to a project focusing on water efficiency is perplexing. WEMA justifies the insect resistance component by claiming that the yield gains achieved through DT need protection from insects, which are more likely to inflict damage to crops during droughts (AATF 2017d). Marketing of insect resistance and DT as a ‘symbiotic’ package is manipulative—it indicates that the promotion of MON 89034, under WEMA, is part of a great masquerade to push GMOs involving other traits into the rest of Africa.

• To compound the problem, WEMA is promoting the highly compromised MON 810, an event that failed dramatically in South Africa and has been phased out in SA (ACB 2015). The variety failed due to massive insect resistance, after only 15 years of utilisation in commercial agriculture in South Africa (ACB 2013a), as well as having been found completely unsuitable for small-scale farming systems (ACB 2015). This should serve as a warning for any countries currently involved in field trials for this event, with a view to commercialisation.

• It appears that WEMA’s (unverified) yield information stems from field trials conducted in experimental stations, in which the controlled conditions are far removed from the conditions experienced by farmers in the field. As argued by Setimela (2017a), Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has one of the highest yield gaps between controlled and field conditions. This is attributable to the “multiple stresses that crops face throughout the season in smallholder farmers’ fields” (Setimela et al. 2017a). The strategy used by private companies—that of breeding under non-stress conditions—invariably results in greater yield figures (Setimela et al. 2017a). This is the basis of the misleading statements on efficacy made by private companies and the WEMA project.

• In addition, trials conducted in a controlled environment cannot be representative of the specific conditions of various agroecological zones (Fisher, van den Berg and Mutengwa 2015b). This is illustrated by the yield outcome from the 2014/15 planting season, made publicly available by the ARC (ARC) (2016b). The ARC states that smallholders in Limpopo’s

Mokopane district, who were given WEMA conventional seed as part of WEMA’s promotional launch, achieved a yield of 1.14 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) during the 2014/15 drought, compared to 0.6 t/ha during the previous season (ARC 2016b). These yields are far from the success that the ARC would like to present. It is only if small-scale farmers are able to produce a yield of 3 t/ha that local agronomists will consider that WEMA hybrids have performed well. This is the minimum yield for farmers to break even, even when buying seed that is royalty-free.

• Information relating to performance and quality control is notably absent from the WEMA website. This lack of clarity on the performance of WEMA technologies was pinpointed by social audits conducted by the Ethical, Social, Cultural, and Commercialisation Program of the Sandra Rotman Centre (University Health Network and University of Toronto, Canada). These social audits were conducted in 2009, 2010 and 2011, but it seems that the WEMA project has not monitored the social impact of the project since, or, if this information exists, it is not publicly available.

• A key selling point of conventional and GM WEMA maize is that it is made available ‘royalty-free’ to small-scale farmers in target countries. The terms of this licensing arrangement are: “CIMMYT and Monsanto respectively grant to AATF a personal, non-transferable, non-exclusive, fully paid-up, royalty-free license to each of the drought-tolerant maize lines to be developed in the project” (AATF 2017f: 2).This assertion could not be tested with Monsanto, but it can be assumed that, as the technology provider it had to provide the DT/Bt royalty-free—this is the only avenue for accessing CIMMYT’s germplasm. Indeed, CIMMYT makes germplasm available only under strict conditions, one of which is that project collaborators must commit to royalty-free use of the germplasm.

• The assumption being tested here is that of the Trojan Horse theory; once the conventional breeding part of the project is established and gives results, this will justify and facilitate the introduction of GM DT and Bt maize. These are already promoted as being “more robust” and “performing better” (AATF 2017a) than conventional DT varieties, as the ACB has already indicated.

• The WEMA project is thus being used as justification, based on the precedent created by the introduction of conventional DT hybrid maize—ostensibly royalty-free and for the ‘benefit’ of smallscale farmers—to weaken biosafety regulation, particularly in Tanzania and Mozambique.

• It is fair to assume that once the DT/Bt GM royalty-free events are commercially released in the target countries (and then more broadly across the continent), future stacking of DT events will include herbicide tolerance (Roundup Ready). This is a technology with an associated herbicide use—glyphosate—which is commercially highly profitable to Monsanto and which it will not relinquish. This is confirmed by Monsanto’s recent submission in South Africa for approval of the commercial release of MON 87460 x NK 603 x MON 89034, intended for cultivation in the entire region of southern Africa (ACB 2017). This stacked event combines “drought tolerance, insecticidal activity and herbicide tolerance”; for WEMA, this represents the ‘ideal’ GM hybrid.

[1]Dr B.M. Prasanna, Director of CGIAR’s Research Program, MAIZE, and Director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program. Pers. Comm. 22 May 2017.

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