The first results of the national performance trials (NPT) of genetically modified (GM) cotton done by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) in partnership with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), universities and several scientists, which are due this year, are eagerly awaited by stakeholders in the texture industry.
The performance trial was done after an environmental release approval by the National Bio-safety Authority (NBA) in 2016, based on Environmental Impact Assessment clearance certificate and licence for open field trials issued in 2018.
The progress is a major breakthrough for Kenya, which lags behind other African countries in deployment of Bt technology despite enormous knowledge in plant breeding for insect-resistance cotton and many crops including maize.
Bt technology has been used to mitigate effects of pests and diseases, drought stress and other challenges facing farmers globally with broader advantage of reduced production costs, improved crop quality and environmental protection from use of excessive pesticides through chemical sprays.
Comparative analysis of Kenya and peer countries
Kenya and South Africa initiated GM crops’ research and trials almost simultaneously (Kenya in 2001, South Africa 1998), but the latter has become the first country in Africa to release its first commercial GM crop — insect-resistant (Bollgard II cotton) — that was subsequently adopted for commercial production four years later in 2002.
Surprisingly, the adoption rapidly expanded following the first commercial release, and by 2001-2002, it was estimated that approximately 90 per cent of farmers were growing Bt cotton and now it is 100 per cent Bt seed.
If Bt cotton will be released in Kenya and adopted for commercial production in 2019/2020, it will have taken us 18 years to set up appropriate bio-safety legislations, conduct confined field trials (CFTs) and NPTs.
This is comparatively a very slow pace of regulation and technology adoption.
India accounts for the largest area of Bt cotton in the world, with more than 10 million hectares planted in 2016.
Lesser technologically developed countries like Burkina Faso and Sudan are among the four African countries producing Bt cotton.
Non-existent bio-safety risks
Several health and bio-safety concerns raised by Kenyans over the years, including threats to life, could have been more serious in India where seven million farmers have been growing GM cotton on 12 million hectares, (approximately a quarter of cotton demand globally) throughout the country since it was introduced 16 years ago, according to published data.
In Philippines, 80 per cent of Filipino yellow corn farmers are planting biotech maize, which is currently under ban in Kenya.
Socio-economic and environmental merits of using Bt cotton
It is highly expected that adoption and commercialisation of Bt cotton will revitalise the textile industry and by extension contribute to the revival of the cotton sector and create up to 600,000 jobs on farms and apparel factories.
Bt cotton has a potential to produce 260,000 bales of cotton per hectare annually as compared to none Bt varieties, which stand at 28,000-30,000 bales, translating to about 572kg/hectare against a potential of 2,500kg/hectare.
In Australia, cotton production area increased by 89 per cent after introduction of Bt cotton variety (BollgardIII/RR Flex cotton), which was adopted by many farmers.
When current Bt varieties are released in Kenya, similar increase in acreage is expected. Farm labour allocated to spraying is expected to reduce significantly.
Threats to Bt technology
The greatest threat to Bt crop varieties is the ability of insects to adapt to bio-insecticides synthesised by Bt crop. This may eventually lead to the development of resistance to Bt toxins by the insects, which is a genetically based decrease in the frequency of individuals susceptible to the toxin in a population that has been previously exposed to them.
STRATEGIES TO MINIMISE RESISTANCE
a) Use of refuge crops
The key strategy to the delay in the emergence of insect resistance is planting of conventional (non-GM) cotton in or near Bt cotton fields, or the planting of other suitable crops that ensure that there are available refuge crops to promote the survival of susceptible insects.
This will ensure that there is high population of susceptible insects that will mate with the rare resistant individuals surviving on Bt cotton and thus reduce build-up of resistance.
b) Use of gene stacking
Insect resistance may also be delayed by the use of plants producing two distinct toxins popularly known as gene pyramid strategy (stacking).
The most widespread current example is Bollgard II, which produces Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab genes that are more sustainable than using single genes.
c) Extension training and education on integrated pest management
Bt cotton production should not be left primarily to smallholder farmers without proper training and education on the value chain. Adequate training and extension by target county governments is mandatory.
Seed companies, NBA, Kalro and Kephis should provide sufficient information on any risk management strategy including dangers on emergence of insect-resistance by enforcing implementation of refuge policy and adequate monitoring of compliance.
A good strategy to achieve this is to ensure that farmers reserve land for non-Bt cotton and the seed company provides them with the requisite amount of non-GM seed when purchasing Bt cotton.
Good agronomic practices will be required to obtain a yield gain sufficient to cover the additional input cost incurred in purchase of Bt technology seed, which may be 3-5 more expensive.
After release, the spread and adoption of Bt cotton among smallholder farmers may never be achieved without combined collaboration of various public and private institutions of research (Kalro and universities), regulation (Kephis), seed companies, agrovets and county governments for seed maintenance, regeneration, production, extension and knowledge management.
d) Implementation of agro-biodiversity strategy
The Bt genes can be introduced into many existing cotton varieties like HART90 with desirable staple and fibre length to maintain crop agro-biodiversity that contribute to species and varietal diversity used in agricultural production.
There is a risk of few Bt cotton varieties to dominate a large area in the country leading to reduced agro-biodiversity and nation’s cropping patterns, resulting in reduced sources of resistance traits for diseases, quality and contributing to agro-biodiversity erosion.
Kephis should conduct adequate NPTs before release and avoid dominance of few varieties in cropping system. There is also need to strengthen cotton breeding and seed production in Kenya.
India has managed to maintain cotton varietal diversity by mixing Bt cotton and conventional varieties.
e) Development of input and output markets
The current status of cotton ginneries is gloomy and factories like Kicomi and Rivatex are not processing any meaningful product that can contribute to planned revival of manufacturing sector.
As Kenya readies to release new Bt varieties, there is need to invest in the value chain as the smallholder cotton growers, who are the majority, will acquire the necessary production inputs to boost their productivity regardless of whether the crop is Bt or conventional cotton.
Key productivity-enhancing inputs such as adequate quality seed of adapted varieties, fertilisers, irrigation and right training and information need to be established now.
Investments in cotton processing factories as is currently happening with Rivatex-Eldoret under Moi University need to be done across major growing areas.
Using agro-processing economic zones and industrial parks would be a great idea. Providing appropriate credit to farmers through co-operatives for easy financing of their activities would eliminate the major constraint of lack of resources.
This will in turn create jobs, achieving government agenda of using cotton as key ingredient and contributor to manufacturing sector.
Prof Kimurto is a crop expert at Agro-science Park, Egerton University, and Dr Kimani is the managing director of Kephis.