Paying the price for rejecting scientific answer to food crisis

Monday June 26 2017

Nyeri South Agricultural officer Ruffas Mwangi inspects fall armyworm infested maize crop at Karima in Nyeri county on June 8, 2017.  PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Nyeri South Agricultural officer Ruffas Mwangi inspects fall armyworm infested maize crop at Karima in Nyeri county on June 8, 2017. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Gilbert arap Bor
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This year, I’ve seen the devastation of the present—and I’ve also witnessed hope for the future.

Unfortunately, this is an election period and everyone seems to be more concerned with who will be elected to what position on August 8.

Our country faces an important choice for farmers and food security.

Does the government want to continue to struggle with drought and pests, or does it want to embrace the science that can ease our plight and feed our people?

In March, on my small farm near Eldoret, I planted six hectares of maize for livestock feed.

PROLONGED DROUGHT

Due to a prolonged drought, they failed to germinate.

In April I had to replant, suffering the added cost of more seeds.

Most of my neighbours were also affected.

For small family farmers like us, this is a major expense—and the kind of frustration that makes us question why we ever went into agriculture.

RAINS ARRIVED

The good news is that the rains finally arrived.

The bad news is that a different problem then emerged: An infestation of the green vegetation-devouring fall armyworm, one of the toughest pests to control.

The bugs feasted on crops in Uasin Gishu County and other counties, including Bungoma, Kakamega, Nandi, and Trans Nzoia in the traditional breadbasket region.

A report attributed to the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Dr Andrew Tuimur, indicates that out of 1.92 million hectares of maize planted this year, more than 800,000 hectares are under threat, while 200,000 hectares are affected.

SEED GENETICS

But this should not be the case when a proven science can provide relief through an improved understanding of seed genetics.

These plants have revolutionised farming in North and South America and even in the sub-Saharan countries of Burkina Faso and South Africa.

In these places, farmers have enjoyed record yields, thanks in large measure to biotechnology.

A recent report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) says that last year, farmers around the world planted more GM crops than ever before.

The vast majority were smallholders in the developing world.

COMMERCIALISE GM CROPS

The tragedy is that we know what we need to do, which is to commercialise the GM crops that Kenyan researchers have developed and tested in recent years.

On May 11, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) began a second year of confined field trials to examine a variety of maize that naturally repulses the fall armyworm.

I attended the groundbreaking ceremony in Kitale and was impressed to see the meticulous planning.

Researchers planted GM maize and non-GM maize side-by-side and also took steps to prevent pollen from drifting onto other farms.

IMPORTANT MILESTONE

This is an important milestone, but also a reminder that we’ve moved too slowly.

If this technology had been available to farmers this year, we would not have had to suffer the crippling effects of the fall armyworm and would be in a much better position to feed our families and country today.

The government has imported hundreds of tonnes of maize from South Africa and Mexico, also yellow maize from Russia and Ukraine, which grow Bt maize.

We are paying foreign farmers for what Kenyans can grow.

We had had to divert development funds to buy additional pesticides.

ECONOMIC RETURNS

GM crops won’t solve all of our problems, but they mark a clear path forward as we strive to achieve the “triple bottom line” of economic returns for farmers, environmental sustainability through a reduction in chemical sprays, and food security for Kenyans.

This season, we have suffered and paid the price. We have also seen the potential of a safe solution.

Now, for the sake of Kenya, we must embrace modern science and move forward into the future. 

The government must allow the commercialisation stage of GM maize by Kalro.

 Dr Bor, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa’s Eldoret Campus, is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement award winner and a member of the Global Farmer Network. [email protected]