Kenya will have its first commercial genetically modified cotton crop in 2014 when seeds are released to farmers.
Genetically modified cotton seeds commonly known as BT cotton are resistant to certain diseases and tolerant to drought and therefore give farmers a yield double that of ordinary cotton.
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) has a demonstration farm in Thika, while trials on the seed have run for several years and farmers in Embu have been trained on how to grow it.
“It should be clear that we are on the path to introducing commercialised GMO crops because the law now allows that,” said Wilson Songa, the Agriculture Secretary. “This is a technology we believe in and we know it will be of benefit to farmers,” he said.
The chief executive of the Cotton Development Authority, Micah Powon, confirmed that the trials are on and preference has been given to the GMO cotton because it, “Cuts spraying from nine times to three times, in addition to doubling yields.”
He said Kenya currently requires 200,000 bales of cotton every year to be self-sufficient in cotton needs and this is easily achievable through planting GMO cotton.
These revelations come when the country is debating whether it should import GMO maize from South Africa.
Arguments in favour of adopting genetically modified maize have resonated from the larger science community, while environmental activists have opposed it on the grounds that GMOs are harmful to humans and biodiversity in the long term.
In Africa, GMO technology has been mostly applied to cotton and maize crops although the technology has been used to develop vaccines like that against Hepatitis B and hormones like insulin used by diabetes patients.
Choosing GMO cotton is part of government efforts to increase the value of small scale farming and ease rural poverty while enabling local textile manufacturers to access cheaper raw materials.
It is also aimed at fast-tracking revival of the cotton industry in Kenya, which collapsed in the 1990s due to several hurdles including importation of second-hand clothes.
Cotton production in Kenya peaked at 70,000 bales in 1986, the quantity Kenya requires today to be self sustaining. Production has since dropped to 45,000 bales in 2010. The country has an annual potential of 260,000 bales, according to Cotton Development Authority.
Cotton is generally a pesticide intensive crop and a survey carried out by Kari indicated that 35 per cent of farmers cited the cost of pesticides as the biggest constraint to growing cotton.
But critics say the GMO cotton is harmful to the soil in the long run and still requires some level of pesticide use. Britain’s Institute of Science in Society said in a statement that GMO cotton produces a toxin that kills some cotton pests, including the boll weevil.
However, it does not resist sucking pests, such as aphids, that might also damage the crop and will therefore require subsidiary spraying.
The Cotton Development Authority said that production and marketing of GMO cotton seeds will be supervised by KARI and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services to avoid situations where seeds are tampered with.
KARI officials said Kenya has untapped potential to grow 350,000 hectares of cotton which would produce 260,000 bales or 52 million kilos. Currently only about 30,450 hectares is under cotton.
There have been concerns that cross pollination of GMO cotton with related crops will transfer the genes to non GMO crops but Mr Powon said cotton is 95 per cent self pollinated and research so far indicates transfer of genes to other crops is negligible. Contamination incidences also reduce when GMO cotton is spaced from other crops.