Allow farmers to grow GM maize, scientists plead

Friday September 1 2017

Julius Kitur, a farmer in Kamagut, Uasin Gishu County checks on his yellow maize crop.

Julius Kitur, a farmer in Kamagut, Uasin Gishu County checks on his yellow maize crop. He has 52 acres under yellow maize with which he plans to make feeds for his dairy animals. Scientists are calling on the government to allow the growing of Genetically Modified Maize (GM) to address shortage. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By JULIUS SIGEI
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Scientists are calling on the government to allow the growing of Genetically Modified Maize (GM) to address shortage.

The farmers coalescing under the Kenya National Society for Biotech Farming (KNBF) lobby say government’s delay in giving the green light to GM maize was costing the country billions of shillings in imports and wreaking misery on farmers who depend on the crop for livelihood.

“We have seen biotech crops and conventional ones. The difference is like day and night,” KNBF chairman Mugo Magondu said during a tour of confined field trial of transgenic maize at Arid and Range Lands Research Institute at Kiboko in Makueni earlier this week.

The crop was modified for insect protection and drought tolerance.

“South Africa started growing GM maize, cotton and soybeans more than 20 years ago. Our children travel all over the world including to the US and eat GM food yet they have never come into any harm. Why are we suffocating our economy by refusing to embrace technology?” Magondu posed.

Scientists estimate that the country could be losing up to Sh9.2 billion annually to drought, pests and disease attack on maize alone.

Maize farming has in recent years been hit by prolonged droughts and a number of diseases including the virulent Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) which has wiped out whole crops in, especially, the South Rift breadbasket.

Pests such as the stem borer and the fall army worm have also been on the rise.

Dr Murenga Mwimali, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project coordinator, says despite scientists coming out with massive research that could improve yields, Kenya was lagging behind in the production of the staple crop because of “bad politics and unfavourable policy”.

DREW CONDEMNATION FROM SCHOLARS

“We produce so little yet we consume so much. Our current production is 1.5 tonnes an hectare which is way below the global target of 55 tonnes,”

Dr Mwimali said in a tour organised by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Application (ISAAA).

Agriculture CS Willy Bett in March dampened the hopes of researchers and farmers when he announced the government could not yet allow open trials of GM crops because they “risked contaminating conventional varieties through seed pollination”.

Mr Bett’s damper followed another by his Health counterpart Cleopa Maillu who last year turned down an application by scientists to conduct open field trials for biotech maize, citing the current ban imposed in 2012.

The move drew condemnation from scholars who argued the ban was on imports and not research.

“From the word go we resolved to do these trails in Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) stations where there is enough land and security,” said Dr Mwimali. He added their confined field trial areas in Kiboko and Kitale were 600 metres away from the nearest maize fields, which he explained was way longer than the global isolation distance of 400 metres.

“We have done this field trial a second time to confirm the results of the first season crop. By the end of the year we shall have handed everything to the National Biosafety Authority and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services.”