Last week’s article, “How Bt cotton can revive collapsed textile industry,” glossed over pertinent issues and erroneously glorified the crop’s credentials.
Prior to propagating genetic engineering, a technology whose public safety record is widely contested, stakeholder engagement across the board should have been paramount.
Yet the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) proceeded with National Field performance Trials (NPTs) and Confined Field Trials (CFTs) without upholding this principle, which would have required, among other considerations, publication of the trial protocol.
Why the secrecy, especially when threats to public health such as ecological pollution due to pollination of transgenic materials are widely acknowledged in the scientific community?
The reasons for declining cotton output have not been sufficiently interrogated but have largely been blamed on climate change – for which GMOs are constantly prescribed as the solution.
Nothing could be further from the truth. From our experience, the problem is structural – for which Bt cotton is not remotely appropriate as a solution.
For starters, no transparent empirical study has been done to demonstrate that Bt cotton performs substantially better than conventional varieties. It is a long-standing global tradition in agriculture that a new technology/variety cannot be adopted unless it is proven to be at least 10 per cent better than a conventional variety, based on an agreed set of parameters.
This has not been done, transparently and objectively, in the case of Bt cotton trials in Kenya. This requirement is a well-established practice that Kephis and Kalro have elected to honour in breach, which we argue, poses a danger to public health and threatens the market access Kenya’s horticulture industry currently enjoys in Europe.
Unknown to many, cotton is 60 per cent food – both as cotton seed oil and cotton seed animal feed, and only 40 per cent fabric.
Feeding cows and other domestic animals on Bt cotton seed animal feed has been linked to mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and other prion-type diseases.
Mad cow disease, often fatal, has been tracked to prions (proteinaceous infectious particles). These are improperly folded proteins, which cause other healthy proteins to also become misfolded.
REVIVE THE COTTON INDUSTRY
Over time, they cause holes in the brain, severe dysfunction and death. Prions survive cooking and are believed to be transmittable to humans who eat meat from infected “mad” cows.
The disease may incubate undetected for about 2 to 8 years in cows and up to 30 years in humans.
Prions are also carcinogens that could add to the already heavy cancer burden weighing down our public healthcare system and make Kenya’s fresh produce uncompetitive in European markets that have, to date, not approved environmental release of genetically modified seed varieties.
It follows, therefore, that cross-pollination will inevitably contaminate conventional crops and render them unfit for markets that have banned GM crops.
Fresh produce exporters are already reeling over minimum residue levels violations due to application of synthetic pesticides and adoption of Bt cotton will needlessly complicate their challenges.
It was absurd to read the authors’ glowing citation of Bt cotton’s performance in India and Burkina Faso.
In India, farmers have been committing suicide due to indebtedness as a result of poor yields from the adopted Bt cotton varieties while in Burkina Faso, farmers have been phasing out Bt cotton since 2015, citing losses amounting to more than $89 million (Sh8.9 billion) recorded in five out of the seven seasons the country had grown the variety.
A national study showed that while the introduction of GM cultivars in Burkina Faso led to a 22 per cent increase in yield over conventional cultivars and farming households recorded an average profit gain of 51 per cent, all that was lost in the medium term.
What’s more, the GM seeds were producing cotton with shorter fibers, which produce a lower quality fabric, so trading companies had to discount their prices on the international market. As a result, farmers were directed to stop growing Bt cotton and return to conventional varieties.
For the section of the public that wishes to understand this matter, Bt cotton was engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis.
Organic farmers around the world use the natural form of the bacterium as an insecticide, spraying it occasionally during times of high pest infestation.
Engineers, however, isolated and then altered the gene that produces the Bt-toxin, and inserted it into the DNA of the cotton plant. Now every cell of their Bt cotton produces a toxic protein.
The Kenya Pyrethrum Joint Venture is at a loss as to how preference for Bt cotton was made over conventional varieties yet it is known that non-GM optimisation of agronomic and economic conditions would suffice in efforts to revive the cotton industry.
MAKING BIOLOGICAL PESTICIDES
For instance, why overlook the effectiveness of pyrethrum-based, natural, organic pesticides and prefer the use of carcinogenic, transgenic synthetics?
Pyrethrum is the most-effective broad-spectrum active ingredient in the making of biological pesticides, with an unrivaled human and environmental safety profile.
In addition, Kenya has the best ecological conditions for the growing of pyrethrum with the highest pyrethrin content and insecticidal compounds.
Why ignore this potential and proceed to recommend adoption of Bt cotton knowing well that Bt fabrics have been linked to acute dermal toxicity?
Like many countries around the world, Kenya’s reluctance to approve environmental release of GM crops points to the fact that there is no consensus among stakeholders that genetic modification is the panacea to food insecurity.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s focus on food security and manufacturing, as part of the big four agenda in his final term, presents a unique opportunity for review of Kenya’s food production policies and systems and their impact on public health.
The viable intervention, in our view, is to remedy our soils to reduce acidity, conduct thorough post-registration surveillance of pest control products, provide extension service to our farmers, embrace irrigation and carry out aggressive re-afforestation.
In terms of soil remediation and use of healthy bio-pesticides with high knockdown effect, there is no active ingredient better than pyrethrin and seaweed extracts for the making of biological pesticides and fertilisers.
Kenya has a clear advantage in this regard, having at one time controlled more than 70 per cent of global pyrethrin supply.
We need to focus on higher production of safe foods and agro-products by paying attention to the condition of our soils, input quality, storage and value-addition.
Every country that has succeeded in pushing up crop production did so by placing due emphasis on subsidies for inputs, backed up by an efficient seasonal credit system, game-changing incentives for value addition and actively facilitating access to markets. Kenya should be no exception.
Lumumba is the CEO of Green Earth Trust and founding Secretary of the Kenya Pyrethrum Joint Venture. Ruo is an environmental scientist and a trustee of Green Earth Trust. [email protected]