The government should embrace the use of biotechnology in order to boost food security.
According to scientists, the ban of Genetically Modified (GM) technology imposed in the country in 2012 has been the biggest obstacle to food sustainability.
The scientists have for the last ten years been carrying out successful Confined Field Trials (CFT) for the BT maize in the country but the ban on GM foods as well as lack of approval by National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) for National Performance Trials (NPT) is slowing the technology.
Speaking on Tuesday after a visit to the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) CFT site in Kiboko area, James Karanja who is coordinating Bt (Bacillus thuringiensi) maize crop technology that has been under confined field trials for the last 10 years said it’s a high time that the government approves the success of the trials so that the technology can move to the farmers.
“The Bt trials have proved to work, the demonstrations have shown that the hybrid maize we have planted have the potential to control pests such as the stem borer and also the recent fall army worm which is a major problem in the country,” he said.
Dr. Karanja explained that even after the first trials under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project had been approved by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to start National Performance trials in 2017, NEMA is yet to do the same.
NEMA is the Authority that implements policies relating to approval, through NBA, and conducts environmental impact assessment of GMOs intended for release into the environment.
According to Karanja the current trials under the public- private partnership project dubbed “TELA” maize project that was informed after the progress from breeding work of WEMA, demonstration and trials under confined sites have gone on for too long and showing good results but nothing can move forward until the NEMA approves the NPT.
“Today we are demonstrating the potential of this hybrid and also using it to educate our farmers and regulators hoping that through this demo we will be able to change the minds of those who think that there is no safety in biotechnology,” he said
Karanja emphasized that it has been demonstrated all over the world that Bt maize has no single challenge when it comes to safety and that the technology at the KALRO sites is information enough to demystify the notion by critics.
“This is the technology we seriously need to give our farmers so that we can be able to bridge the gap of maize production and stop importing maize but become the exporters,” he said
He however said that the ban imposed on importation and consumption of GM products is still a draw back for the TELA project.
“We cannot move to NPT despite demonstrating potential of the technology in the performance against the stem borer and other insects and also the drought,” he emphasized.
Karanja said that countries such as Brazil, Spain and Paraguay have embraced the Bt technology while in Africa, South Africa, Mozambique and recently Ethiopia and Nigeria have joined in.
Karanja justified the technology saying currently in Kenya, there are 23 products that are licensed to be used as pesticide and all of them are using Bt bacteria and this shows therefore that it has no negative effect on human beings, animals or even birds.
“I do not know for how long we are going to do these trials, this being the sixth year we are demonstrating. It is high time the government came in. I am looking forward to the day farmers will start growing this crop and they give views of how it is working well for them,” he said.
Karanja hoped that the next demos will be on farmers’ field saying that the ball is now squarely on Government hands to embrace the technology that will save the country from importing maize.
Dickson Ligeyo, a maize breeder at KALRO in Kitale and who coordinates maize breeding work said they started testing the current breed in 2016 in both Kitale and Kiboko and the results are promising.
“Despite Kenya releasing various varieties which have been embraced in the region, it is still lagging behind in adopting the said varieties,” he added.
Ligeyo gave an example of Uganda which has adopted some of Kenya’s varieties and are ahead in embracing the Bt Technology and yet tests have been done in Kenya.
“We are lagging behind because of the fear of the unknown and yet many countries since 1996 have gone ahead and adopted the GM foods,” he said
Currently Ligeyo said that KALRO has six centres spread across the country and so far they have released 38 conventional varieties in the highlands regional of Kitale. 44 varieties in the medium altitude of Muguga, Embu and Kakamega, 18 varieties in the dryland areas of Katumani and 5 varieties for the coastal area in Mtwapa
As Kenya’s takes a long time in adopting Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops despite successful trials, it might now lose more funding from donors who have been funding the GM research.
The barriers such as the lack of approval by NEMA and also non commitment by policy makers has become a major discouragement to the donors. They may move to other countries such as Ethiopia and Nigeria who are willing to adopt the technology.
Scientists say that the only way Kenya can solve food insecurity problems is adopting the technology to complement the conventional foods, considering 15 per cent of the maize harvested in East Africa is lost to stem borers each year while the Fall Armyworm threatens to destroy up to 25 per cent more of the harvest.
The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project which ended last year managed to release 76 conventional hybrids under brand name Drought TEGO with some being grown by small holder maize farmers not only in the country but in Sub Saharan Africa while under TELA there are already 5 hybrids that have been released for commercialization.