Farmers pin hopes on biotech maize as climate change bites

Elizabeth Nduku, a farmer in Machakos County, inspects her maize crop that was devastated by drought and fall armyworms. PHOTO | COURTESY
Elizabeth Nduku, a farmer in Machakos County, inspects her maize crop that was devastated by drought and fall armyworms. PHOTO | COURTESY 

The stress and pain of disruptions due to drastic climatic change is best defined by the plight of farmers.

Millions of them have been rendered hopeless by crop failure.

The phenomenon has also killed various businesses and washed huge investments down the drain.

Kenya is among global nations whose rain-fed agriculture is in turmoil due to drastic changes in climate and the pain and frustration among farmers continue to rise by day.
Elizabeth Nduku has only managed to harvest twice at her two-acre farm in Machakos County in the last 10 years.

Her case represents the situation faced by hundreds of other farmers who have fallen victims to the vagaries of weather in the region.

Scientists have blamed this depressing state of affairs on the government’s slow pace in making decision on adoption of biotech seeds, which can withstand harsh climatic conditions, and the farmers’ reluctance in adopting new seed varieties to bring to an end persistent crop failure.

Ordinary seeds

Ms Nduku for instance, believes the ordinary seed varieties are better than the ones bought in the agrovets.

“Last season I planted ordinary breed and I found it to be better than the one I had planted in the previous years, which I bought from a leading seed company,” said the farmer, who harvested two bags from her two-acre plot in the last season.

It was a double tragedy for Ms Nduta as her crop was affected by the fall armyworm and drought that ravaged most parts of the country in the first quarter of 2017.

Christopher Muasya, another farmer within the locality, did not harvest a single bag of maize from his six-acre farm, where on a good year he could get like 50 bags. However, he was lucky to get at least two bags of beans.

And just like Ms Nduku, Mr Muasya says the commercial seeds that they have been planting have not been performing well.

The trend has seen the region become prone to hunger with a good number of households relying on government aid as perennial food failure becomes a reality.

Dr Murenga Mwimali, a seed breeder at the Kenya Agriculture Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) says the effects of climate change are here to stay adding that farming has to become innovative to overcome the challenge.

New approach

“Climate change, new pests and disease are here to stay with us and overcoming them require new approach to farming,” said Dr Murenga.

The government, he says, has to move with speed and allow the adoption of the new varieties that have been scientifically proven to be drought-tolerant and pest-resistant.

He said the new varieties have demonstrated resilience in withstanding environmental challenges, hence can play a key role in addressing the current food shortages in the country.

Despite this scientific breakthrough, the government is still dilly dallying on introduction of new seeds in the market.

There have been conflicting statements from state agencies on introduction of the biotech maize for open field trials, commonly referred to as National Performance Trials (NPTs).

Kalro and AAFT, the pioneers of the biotech maize in the country, received the green light to conduct NPTs in August 2016, but this was stopped by the Ministry of Health, saying this was a way of introducing Genetically Modified Organism crops in the country, when the ban that was placed in 2012 is still in place.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the regulator of the biotech crops in the country, said last year that the NPTs would start in October 2017, after the ministries of health and agriculture agreed on the way forward.

But the NPTs are yet to start with scientists saying the delays have cost them in terms of time and money.

The Ministry of Agriculture projected in July that maize harvest will drop this year from 37 million bags to 28 million bags resulting from armyworm invasion and erratic rains witnessed during planting of this year’s crop.

Major milestone

Kenyan scientists achieved a major milestone last year as the findings of a new biotech maize in one of its fields proved to be drought-tolerant and insect-resistant, in what might be a solution to fall armyworms and unpredictable weather that has subjected farmers to losses.

The variety, Mon 87460/Mon 810, that has been undergoing trials in confined fields can withstand harsh climatic condition and invasion from pests.

Scientists say this holds the key to the challenges facing Kenyan farmers.

Biotech maize, proponents argue, has toxic proteins that make them resistant to insect attacks.

The confined trials, which are conducted at Kalro centres, is a project of Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) funded by Bill & Melinda Gates and is aimed at developing smart technology for African farmers.

During the field trials, Kephis was to compare the conventional seed varieties with the genetically-modified ones with a view to determining changes in nutritional composition, yield performance and pest tolerance.