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High-yielding GMO cotton wins over Tana River farmers


Mr Zachariah Guyo, a farmer at Bura Irrigation scheme in Tana River tending to his cotton. PHOTO | POOL

In 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta under his Big Four Agenda made an announcement that caught scientists unawares after allowing the cultivation of Genetically Modified cotton to boost the manufacturing sector in the country.

The announcement superseded a 2012 ban that had been put in place, prohibiting importation or cultivation of GMO crops in the country, unless it is done under confined trials for research purposes.

Three years later, Zachariah Guyo has emerged as one of the big beneficiaries of Mr Kenyatta’s announcement having doubled his crop with the cultivation of the new biotechnology cotton.

Mr Guyo had been farming cotton for years in Tana River County but stopped because of diseases and insects that ate into his production.

However, with the introduction of Bt cotton, the farmer has only ever seen his yields go up.

“I can attest to the benefits that come with growing this new variety of cotton. I have seen my production double since I embraced the GMO cotton,” said the farmer who is doing the second round of the crop.

Mr Adhan Umuru, another farmer in Tana River says he is also impressed by the performance of the Bt cotton. Its yields and resistance to pests and diseases, he says, makes it appealing for farmers to plant.

“Previously, we could lose a lot of crops to pests and diseases. Boll worms were a major threat to cotton farming. However, with the introduction of this new variety, we are no longer facing the problem of pests,” said Mr Umuru.

The farmers are also enjoying a ready market after signing a contract with Makueni Ginneries that readily buys their crop once it’s ready.

National Irrigation Authority Hola schemer manager James Kirimi said farmers, who grow the crop within the settlement, are selling a kilo of cotton to the ginnery at Sh54 a kilo.

“These farmers are assured of the price because they have already signed a contract to supply the crop to the ginnery,” said Mr Kirimi.

The performance of this GM cotton, which is four times more yielding than the conventional one, has been a driving factor towards the adoption of Bt cotton.

One stem of Bt cotton produces 40 bolls while conventional varieties produce 15 to 20 bolls, making the new variety superior.

The government is projecting that by 2022 between 40,000 and 200,000 farmers will have taken up GMO cotton as it seeks to revive the textile sector that collapsed for lack of raw material.

Market demand

Kenya produces less than 12 million square metres of woven fabric per year, against a market demand of approximately 171 million square metres.

Because textile mills are operating at less than 40 percent capacity, even if all textile factories were to operate at 100 percent capacity, this would produce 26.7 million square metres of fabric, which is only 15.6 percent of the demand.

Scientists have argued that the Bt cotton is resistant to pests and diseases and have the ability to withstand drought.

“This GM cotton is pest-resistant and drought-tolerant and it is the solution to the notorious bollworms that have been affecting the production of the crop in the country,” said Charles Waturu, a senior scientist with Kenya Agriculture Livestock and Research Organisation (Kalro).

Under the big four agenda, the government is targeting manufacturing, especially through textile production, which has been dwindling over years, to create more jobs in the country.

Rivatex revival

In 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta re-commissioned Rivatex Company to promote the production of locally made products using cotton that has been produced by the local farmers. Cotton production has been falling in the country since the 1980s with Kenya relying on imports to bridge the deficit.

According to a report titled The State of Second-Hand Clothes and Footwear Trade in Kenya, published on March 4, 2021, by the Institute of Economic Affairs, Kenyans spent Sh197.5 billion in 2019 on clothes and footwear.

“Some 2.5 percent of private consumption in Kenya was spent on clothing and footwear for the year 2019. This spending amounts to Sh197.5 billion which comes to an average of Sh4,150 per person per year for all purchases of second-hand garments, new clothes, and footwear,” reads the report.

The government has since 2014 pumped almost Sh5 billion in modernising Rivatex, creating over 3,000 jobs and providing fabrics to over 30,000 tailors across the country.

It has taken scientists years of research to have the GM cotton approved for cultivation in Kenya. However, the approval of maize is still pending.

This research, which has so far been recalled, formed the basis upon which the ban was placed.

Kenya has been conducting trials on GMO maize at the confined fields for the last 10 years but the government is yet to allow commercialisation of this variety.

“Kenya is losing this technology because the donor is not going to pump more money on this research when the current policy has barred commercialisation,” says James Karanja, Lead Scientist at Kalro for this project.

Former Health Cabinet Secretary Beth Mugo placed a ban on GMOs in 2012 after a journal published that consumption of the crop had been found to cause cancerous tumors in mice.

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