It’s high time Kenyans recognised the true heroes of national food security

Tuesday October 1 2013

PHOTO | FILE Prof Kinyua (left) explains about a rust-free wheat variety at the university farm in Eldoret.

PHOTO | FILE Prof Kinyua (left) explains about a rust-free wheat variety at the university farm in Eldoret. NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Gilbert arap Bor
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Terrorists executed at least 67 people and injured more than 200 at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 21 — a day the United Nations has marked as the International Day of Peace for more than three decades. Al-Shabaab, a radical group based in Somalia, immediately claimed credit for the atrocity.

Now my countrymen want to know: How could this have happened? Why does Kenya deserve this violence?

At times like these, we tend to focus on those who commit these crimes and ask how to prevent the next atrocity. In a well-received column, Kenya’s Vision 2030 CEO, Mr Mugo Kibati, suggested that we improve the pay and working conditions of police officers.

We must think bigger, too.

There’s no such thing as national security without food security. Africa has countless problems, but many of them would be reduced if only we produced more food. If our continent did a better job of feeding itself, we wouldn’t suffer so much violence.

So, in addition to concentrating on the villains of the Westgate massacre, we should focus on the heroes of food security. Let me tell you about three.

In two weeks, at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, Dr Charity Kawira Mutegi, a 38-year-old Kenyan scientist, will receive the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. It honours researchers under the age of 40 who demonstrate “the scientific innovation and dedication to food security” that animated the life of Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for pioneering the “Green Revolution”.

Dr Mutegi has led efforts to solve the problem of aflatoxicosis, a mould that contaminates grain. In 2004 and 2005, it was responsible for 125 deaths in eastern Kenya.

Mutegi discovered the source of the outbreak and developed a method to prevent future calamities: By introducing non-toxic strains of the fungus that out-compete the toxic strains, farmers can fight aflatoxicosis at an affordable price and in an environmentally safe way.

COMPARE NOTES

I have attended the World Food Prize ceremony before. The annual gathering offers an excellent opportunity for farmers from around the world to get together and compare notes. I am going again this year, and I look forward to recognising Dr Mutegi’s accomplishments.

Another hero of food safety is Prof Miriam Kinyua, a University of Eldoret lecturer who has overseen a project to defeat wheat rust, a disease that can destroy entire fields.

Using a technique called “mutation breeding,” which exposes seeds to radiation and hastens the natural process of mutation, she developed several lines of wheat that resist wheat rust. The Agriculture ministry has approved two for commercial use, and six tonnes of the specialised wheat seeds are now becoming available for our next planting season.

Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan is another hero of food safety. Unlike Dr Mutegi and Prof Kinyua, his is a household name. He currently chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), a group based in Kenya.

A month ago, it issued a report that praised the potential of agricultural biotechnology and described opposition to genetically modified crops as a “farce”.

Only four African countries have commercialised GM crops, though five more, including Kenya, are currently engaged in field trials.

African countries should rethink their scepticism about GM crops, says Agra: “It is important to point out that GM crops have been subject to more testing worldwide than any other new crops, and have been declared as safe as conventionally bred crops by scientific and food safety authorities worldwide.”

Mr Annan is one of the world’s most influential Africans. His group’s support of biotechnology will be indispensable as our continent tries to improve food security.

Prof Kinyua and Dr Mutegi have already demonstrated the wealth of scientific talent and capacity we have. The government must now allow our scientists to give farmers the latest technologies available to produce more food and contribute to food security: crop biotechnology!

Let’s hope the world is listening. I hope Kenya is listening.