MALAWI – Malawi has imposed a ban on the import of unmilled maize from Kenya and Tanzania to mitigate the potential spread of maize lethal necrosis disease, a threat that could further exacerbate the country’s existing food shortages.

The Ministry of Agriculture announced the ban, emphasizing that the disease, causing up to a 100 percent yield loss, has no treatment. Importation of maize is now permitted only after it has been milled, either as flour or grit.

Henry Kamkwamba, an agriculture expert, highlighted the challenge of containing the disease once introduced, drawing parallels with the banana bunchy top virus that led to Malawi becoming a net importer of bananas due to lax import policies.

Maize lethal necrosis (MLN) is caused by synergistic mixed infection with any of several maize-infecting viruses from the family Potyviridae and the unrelated machlomovirus, Maize chlorotic mottle virus (MCMV).

This synergistic disease was originally described in Kansas, USA in 1978, as the synergistic mixed infection of MCMV with Maize dwarf mosaic virus (MDMV) or Wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV), and named corn lethal necrosis (CLN), now referred to as MLN.

MCMV or potyvirus infection alone cause mosaic and mild to moderate stunting, while mixed infection of both results in characteristic leaf margin and apical necrosis, severe stunting and mosaic and highly elevated MCMV titres.

One or more maize-infecting potyviruses such as Sugarcane mosaic virus (SCMV) and MDMV are endemic in maize throughout the world.

Maize, being the nation’s primary food crop, raises concerns about the potential impact on food security.

Malawi, grappling with shortages following Cyclone Freddy’s destruction of maize crops last March, faces estimates of 4.4 million people, approximately a quarter of the population, experiencing food shortages until March 2024, according to the World Food Program and the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee.

While the ban aims to prevent the disease’s spread, Grace Mijiga Mhango, President of the Grain Traders Association of Malawi, expressed concerns about potential cost increases and suggested that the next alternative for maize imports would be South Africa, albeit at a higher expense.

Malawi’s government assured that the ban is temporary, allowing time to explore additional preventive measures against maize lethal necrosis disease.

With maize stocks in the national strategic reserves below required levels, the World Food Program has initiated milling 30,000 metric tons of relief maize to address immediate food needs, with the first consignment expected soon.

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