Kenyan scientists are optimistic that bio-technology could be accepted locally as a way to tackle emerging pests and erratic weather patterns that contribute to low yields.
Just recently, a maize variety that was tested for resistance to stalk borers also exhibited promising results in resisting the fall armyworm.
“The stalk borer larvae were placed in all 16 maize varieties under trial and we found out (accidentally) that the variety with the genes for stalk borer resistance and drought resistance was also not attacked by the fall armyworm,” said Dr Murenga Mwimali, a researcher and crop breeder at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro).
The stacked or transgenic maize is currently on the second phase of controlled trials and application for national field trials are expected to be made by the end of the year.
This is promising news for farmers who have been battling the fall armyworm, since it made its foray into Kenyan farms early this year, leaving a trail of destruction.
ARMYWORM LARVAE CONSUME THE LEAVES, LEAVING THE PLANT UNPRODUCTIVE
In South America, where the worm originates, winter and summer help to control it, but the tropical weather in Kenya have made the pest hard to tame.
Armyworms lay up to 2,000 eggs in four days, spread out to immature maize plants in batches of 100 to 200 eggs. The larvae eat up the leaves, leaving the plant stunted and unproductive. This takes between 14 and 28 days, after which the pest leaves the dead plant, moving to the soil for the pupa stage that lasts seven to 10 days. Thereafter, it becomes a moth, covering up to 100 kilometres a day. In the 11 to 14 days the moth remains alive, it lays thousands of eggs.
Last week, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were at Kalro’s Crop Research Institute in Kitale to assess the progress of maize under field trials.
At the same event, The National Biosafety Authority, through its chief executive Dr Willy Tonui, said it had given the greenlight for national performance trials for genetically modified maize to start in October, and added that trials for maize with insect-resistant genes would likely start before the end of the year, following talks between the biosafety authority and the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).
Dr Tonui attributed the delay in approving the trials to the differences between the NBA’s environmental risk assessment report and Nema’s environmental impact assessment. He added that parliament needs to enact laws to govern the adoption of biotechnology to eliminate such conflicts in future.
Genetically modified food has been contentious, starting with a ban on GMOs in 2012 after a taskforce formed by then Minister for Public Health, Beth Mugo, concluded that GMOs were unfit for human consumption.
The taskforce based its decision on a study that linked the crops to cancer in mice, but the international scientific journal which had published the findings of that study, retracted it, prompting GMO proponents to call for the lifting of the ban.
Another taskforce formed to look into the safety of genetically modified foods submitted its report to parliament in 2015.
It recommended a lifting of the ban on a case-by-case basis and called for the importation of genetically modified food in times of crisis, but under advice of the National Biosafety Authority.
Last year, Cabinet Secretary for Health, Dr Cleopa Mailu turned down applications by scientists to conduct field trials for genetically modified maize. The environmental watchdog,
Nema, also jumped into the fray and said that experimental designs for genetically modified maize would have to be tested before licences for field trials were issued, to ascertain the safety of the entire process.