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After Bt cotton nod, Kenya sets sights on biotech food crops

Cotton farmer holds his harvest.
Cotton farmer holds his harvest. FILE PHOTO | NMG 
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Towards the end of last year, Kenya approved commercial farming of Bt Cotton, a genetically modified (GM) cotton variety, making it the first biotech crop to be planted in the country after years of research and emotive debates.

Adoption of genetically engineered crops initially drew contentious debates in the country, with biotech critics strongly questioning the technology’s safety, particularly during this cancer prevalent era.

However, after scientific studies failed to establish any link between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and cancer, the anti-GMO debates slowed down and scientists leading GM studies locally are steadily driving biotech researches and adoption.

Earlier in April this year the Ministry of Agriculture distributed one metric tonne of Bt cotton seeds for planting on demonstration plots covering 10,000 hectares to pilot and raise awareness on the transgenic cotton varieties.

The cotton variety, according to biotech scientists, is high yielding and resistant to notorious bollworm insects and could therefore turn around the country's textile industry that has been on its death bed since early 1990's.

By making the bold move, Kenya not only became the first East African country to ever adopt a transgenic cotton crop, but could also become the first in the region to grow genetically engineered food crops –if it approves Bt Cassava and Bt Maize whose research are currently at advanced stages.

Bacillus thuringiensis or simply Bt is a beneficial and naturally occurring bacteria in the soil that has successfully been used over the years in biochemical pesticides to control vegetable caterpillars.

But after scientists later discovered that adding Bt genes to conventional crops could effectively protect them against pest infestations and eliminate the use of pesticides, this form of genetically engineering of crops has since become the most widely used.

Mr Darlington Mutetwa, an expert from Mahyco Seeds –the Bt cotton seeds distributor in the country – told the Business Daily that the seeds have recorded 98 percent germination.

“We have 720 demonstration plots in Kisumu, Baringo and Kwale counties to showcase and to let farmers experience the technology. With the success we hope to increase Bt cotton farming area to 20,000 hectares next year," Mr Mutetwa said.

“We hope that as we will be expanding the acreage, productivity will also be growing so that we can supply local ginneries,” he added.

He explained that farmers grapple with scores of challenges ranging from pest identification, control, availability of chemicals to how to properly mix them.

Yearly assessment

According to Mr Mutetwa, if a farmer makes a mistake in any of the stages or for instance wrongly identifies the pest or uses the wrong chemical he or she will fail to control the pests, hence leading to poor yields.

The case is, however, different with Bt cotton since the transgenic plant is able to inherently produce a poison that kills the ballworms, he said.

“We also have four hybrids seeds which are non-Bt and have been tested locally by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and have shown yield advantage over the local seeds and can also control the local ballworms," he added.

He further noted that there will be yearly assessment of the crop in all the cotton growing counties to ensure the technology remains effective.

Meanwhile, Bt cassava is awaiting authorities’ approval to became the first genetically modified food crop to be planted in the country.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) has already submitted an application to the National Biosafety Authority seeking open field cultivation of Bt cassava varieties that would later allow breeding and multiplication of the tubers before it’s availed to farmers.

NBA assesses the safety of genetically modified organisms as food, feed and to the environment.

The GM cassava, which is said to be resistance to cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) is being developed under the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa Plus (VIRCA plus) project. The VIRCA plus project is a collaborations between Kenyan, Ugandan, Nigerian and US researchers.

The Bt Cassava research, which began locally in 2008 is ongoing in Alupe (Busia), Mtwapa (Kilifi) and Kalro Kandara (Kiambu) stations.

Prof Douglas Miano, the principal investigator of the Virca plus project in Kenya, pointed out that cassava is mainly affected by two serious viral diseases; the cassava mosaic disease which affects the plant’s factory –the leaves – and eventually the crops yields.

Then there is the brown streak disease, which affects the roots, making it the deadliest as it makes the tubers unfit for consumption both by human and livestock

Prof Miano said that the project started with the cassava brown streak disease because it is the major limiting factor in the crop’s production.

He noted that local farmers lose Sh7.5 billion or 70 percent of their produce every year to the brown streak disease alone.

The researcher argued that while there have been efforts to develop conventional cassava varieties that are resistant to the viral disease –which shows some level of tolerance – they go down with the disease within a few seasons.

“As a project we decided to explore the use of biotechnology and we have been able to come up with a trait that is highly resistant to the diseases. We have gone ahead to evaluate it for safety and sustainability.”

Cassava farming is mainly done in western Kenya and the coastal region under some 200,000 hectares.

Researchers believe that modifying the drought-resilient crop can ease the country's food security pressure and enhance farmers’ livelihoods.

"We have evaluated the cassava varieties we have developed for human and environmental safety and I can confirm that it is good, highly resistant to the diseases, and its nutritional composition has not been affected in any way,” Prof Miano said.

Mr James Karanja, a biotech scientist at karlo, said the BT maize will solve many a farmers’ challenges and boost their productivity and incomes.

Promising results

Mr Karanja who is leading the Bt Maize research in the country said results from three trials so far show that the Bt maize is more effective in controlling stem borer insect attacks compared to the conventional varieties.

Statistics show that the stem borer pest reduces the country's maize production by 13 percent or 400,000 metric tonnes annually, equivalent to $90 million (Sh9.6 billion).

Mr Karanja said that the Bt maize varieties being developed in the country will be both draught tolerant and insect resistant since the project is a continuation of Water Efficient Maize for Africa project (Wema) that developed and released 76 varieties of conditionally-bred drought tolerant maize.

The drought-tolerant hybrid maize varieties developed under the Wema project are marketed under the brand name DroughtTEGO while their genetically modified counterparts –still under trials – will be marketed under the brand name TELA.

Bt Maize rights are owned by the US Monsanto and was first commercialised in 1996. It was licensed to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) on under Wema.

“While the Wema hybrid maize varieties are high yielding and drought tolerant, they are quite susceptible to fall armyworms and stem borers. These pests consume 25 million bags, hence the country will remain food insecure and reliant on imports,” he said.

He said the Bt maize will soon be undergoing national performance trials to pave way for its government approval for commercial release next year.

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