3 August 2017 16:33

Researchers win funding to push forward the production of a cheap, effective and locally-produced biopesticide to combat one of Africa’s major crop pests.

UK and African researchers have won £607,467 funding to move towards commercial production of a biopesticide against African armyworm, a pest which devastates cereal crops and grassland throughout sub Saharan Africa.

The two and a half year project, ‘Biopesticides for Africa: A model system’, also aims to explore some of the key scientific and logistical issues associated with developing and deploying new biopesticides, providing a model for future biopesticide development.

The biopesticide uses one of the African armyworm’s natural enemies, Spodoptera exempta nucleopolyhedrovirus (SpexNPV), to control the pest while it is still a caterpillar. SpexNPV is always present in small amounts in armyworm populations: the biopesticide supplements these numbers.

It has already been used successfully in field tests on cereal crops infested with armyworm, killing around 80% of the caterpillars and bringing the pest under control.

The hope is that the new funding, provided under the Global Challenges Research Fund Foundation Awards for Global Agricultural and Food Systems Research, can help move the SpexNPV biopesticide from further field trials to commercial production and wider deployment.

Professor Ken Wilson, an insect disease ecologist from Lancaster University who is leading the project, has spent many years researching the biology of African armyworm and the SpexNPV baclovirus. He has been working closely with colleagues in the UK and Tanzania, one of the countries most threatened by armyworm, and has advised the Tanzanian Government on how to combat armyworm outbreaks.

“Both globally and across Africa in particular, there is a pressing need to develop cheaper, environment-friendly alternatives to chemical pesticides,” said Ken.

“Conventional chemical pesticides are highly effective at protecting crops, but are generally expensive and in Tanzania, for example, more than 70% of farmers cannot afford them.

“It is a similar story throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa and those farmers who can afford them risk exposing themselves to harmful chemicals due to a lack of appropriate safety gear.

“Moreover, many chemical pesticides harm beneficial insects such as pollinators, livestock and the wider environment.”

While these harmful side-effects have resulted in many chemical pesticides being banned in Europe, biopesticide use is now growing at around 16% per annum. They are often much cheaper to develop than new chemicals.

The research, involving field trials in Tanzania and lab tests in the UK, will examine a variety of issues that can improve both the SpexNPV biopesticide and other biopesticide development. This includes addressing questions such as:

  • will the armyworm caterpillars develop resistance to the biopesticide over time?
  • does the biopesticide itself evolve undesirable traits?
  • is there potential to combine SpexNPV with other microbes to make armyworms more susceptible to infection and control?

The project will build on two long term collaborations between Ken and Armyworm experts in the UK and Tanzania.

Dr Robert Graham, a molecular biologist from Harper Adams University, is co-investigator on the project and has extensive experience of researching the biological control of crop pests. 

Wilfred Mushobozi, who was previously the National Armyworm Coordinator for Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, is CEO of Crop Biosciences Solutions Ltd (CBS Ltd), a Tanzanian SME established in 2012 to deliver bio-tech solutions for crop production and protection in Africa. 

The company has built a biopesticide production facility in Arusha, northern Tanzania, funded by the UK Government. It will provide local logistical and intellectual support, and lead on the commercial delivery of the SpexNPV biopesticide.

The final partner in the project is the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), a leading African research and teaching institution established in 2010 in Arusha, northern Tanzania, which will host a workshop to inspire young African scientists to get involved in working on biopesticides.