Researchers have identified six genetically modified (GM) orphan crops they say will shield East African farmers from effects of climate change and ensure food security.
The crops are pest resistant and drought tolerant, meaning farmers will no longer be dependent on rain-fed agriculture.
They also have breeding times that are 25 to 30 per cent quicker than their non-genetically modified alternatives.
Dr Margaret Karembu, the director of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), said shorter breeding times are vital as bio scientists assess climate changes and adapt crops to survive the conditions.
The six orphan crops chosen for a five-year programme called Bio-resources Innovation Network for Eastern Africa Development (Bio Innovate) are sorghum, millet, cassava, sweet potatoes, potatoes and beans.
The programme is to be managed by the International Research Livestock Institute (ILRI) at their Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BeCA) hub.
Segenet Kelemu, a plant pathologist at BeCA, said the crops were chosen for their pro-poor characteristics, which include limited investment, drought and disease resistance, and are being promoted in six countries to maximise benefits of the programme.
Maize the commonest staple in Kenya, was excluded as “it’s a quite a bit of investment” and drought tolerant varieties are still being worked on, said Kelemu.
Also “we need to diversify and not grow it where it doesn’t grow” said Prof Shaukata Abdulrazak of the National Council for Science and Technology.
In Kenya, the introduction of genetically modified crops to farmers’ fields still hinges on the Biosafety Bill being gazetted.
In Africa, the three countries already in the biotech league are Egypt, South Africa, and Burkina Faso.
For now, GM seeds and trials are restricted to the premises of research institutions.
“Commercialising is pegged on the bio safety regulation,” said Karembu. But, once the new law is gazetted, the varieties will be ready for release to farmers.
According to 2010 statistics from ISAAA there are now 29 countries in GM farming compared to 25 in 2009.
Total land size for these is 148m hectares, representing 10 per cent of the 1.5 billion hectares of crop land in the world.
Soybean is the most dominantly cultivated GM crop globally, occupying 73.3 million hectares, equivalent to 50 per cent of total global GM land.
America is the world’s biggest GM crop cultivator with 66.8m hectares cultivated across eight GM crops.
This five year Bio Innovate initiative in East Africa is funded by the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) to the tune of $16m and is the first of its kind in Africa.
It will also help farmers to improve the processing of waste from sisal and coffee production, and safely treat waste water from leather tanneries and slaughterhouses.
Besides Kenya, other countries covered by the Bio Innovate project are Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda.
“Bio Innovate… is at the heart of the region’s greatest challenges — providing enough food in the face of climate change, diversifying crops and addressing productivity constraints… threatening the livelihoods of millions,” said Carlos Sere, ILRI’s director general.
Speaking during the launch of Bio Innovate at ILRI’s headquarters in Nairobi last week, programme manger Seyoum Leta said “we can help build a more productive and sustainable regional bio resources based economy.”
Leta noted the programme was key to pro-poor economic growth.