Dr Charles Nderito Waturu, the Institute Director, Kalro, Thika spoke to Brian Okinda on why time is ripe for Kenya to adopt Bt-cotton
What is the current situation of the cotton industry?
Kenya has a potential to produce 260,000 bales of cotton annually but currently, our production stands at 28,000, as we get about 572kg/hectare against a potential of 2,500kg/hectare.
While the available land for cotton growing is 400,000 hectares, only about 29,000 is being utilised. We have a ginning capacity of 140,000 bales, with a production of only 28,000, only 31 per cent of that capacity is harnessed.
There are currently 39,000 cotton farmers while the industry can support over 200,000 and generate over Sh15 billion with about 69 per cent of the revenue remaining with the farmers.
There appears to be a decline of certified seeds, what troubles the cotton seed sector?
The sub-sector for a long time lacked an organised seed production and certification system.
The decline of Hola and Bura irrigation schemes, which produced 30 per cent of national seed cotton, led to serious shortage with farmers resorting to recycling.
However, the situation is changing as the Fibre crops directorate has been making efforts to provide certified seeds in partnership with Kalro, Kenya Seed Company and National Irrigation Board.
In 2015, nine metric tonnes of certified seeds was produced at the Bura scheme and plans are underway to multiply more certified seeds.
What does the concept of Bt-cotton mean, especially to the rural smallholder farmer?
Bt-cotton is any variety of cotton, genetically enhanced with Bt-genes to protect it against caterpillar pests, especially the African bollworm, which is the most destructive pest in cotton crops.
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a beneficial bacteria that occurs naturally in the soil. It has been used commercially for more than 30 years to control vegetable caterpillars through biochemical insecticides such as Dipel®, Xentari® and Thuricide®.
Bt-cotton thus reduces use of insecticides from 12 to about three sprays per season hence lowering the cost of production, enhancing populations of natural insect enemies such as ladybirds, and allowing beneficial insects like bees and butterflies to flourish in the cotton crop.
Further, it minimises human and animal exposure to toxic insecticides.
What are the misconceptions that people have about Bt-cotton?
There is a misconception that Bt-cotton is harmful to humans and animals.
The truth is that it has been tested and certified to have no adverse effects on human and animal health. Bt-cotton lint is similar to conventional cotton lint and garments produced from it are safe to wear.
Oil produced from Bt-cotton seed is similar to that from conventional cotton and contains no harmful protein to humans or livestock.
Seedcake for cattle produced from Bt-cotton is also similar to that produced from conventional cotton.
Many believe that Bt-cotton is a variety producing higher yields compared to other cotton varieties, however, any variety can be transformed into Bt-cotton after the Bt-gene is incorporated hence the yield and quality are not affected.
There is also the misapprehension that introduction of Bt-cotton seed would lead to monopoly of seed ownership by a few companies.
The precise situation, however, is that in liberalised markets, any seed merchant can competitively develop and supply certified seed.
What step is the Directorate of Fibre Crops (DoFC) taking to ensure the sector is once again an economic booster?
Formerly, we were known as the Cotton Development Authority. Our main work is to regulate, promote and develops fibre crops in Kenya.
Some of the steps taken to revive the sector include increasing cotton productivity through reviving Bura, Hola, (Kerio Valley Development Authority) KVDA and Garbatula, Isiolo irrigation schemes, provision of certified seeds, introduction of high-yielding cotton varieties after the national performance trials on six high-yielding varieties (two from Bayer East Africa, two from Quton-Zimbabwe and two from Amiran), with one hybrid from Amiran (Ha211 Kenya) already approved for semi-commercialisation.
What challenges do cotton farmers face and how are you working to eliminate them?
Farmers have to contend with low research extension linkages, poor markets and pricing, bad management of ginneries, high cost of inputs, lack of strong producer associations and importation of second-hand clothes (mitumba), which reduces demand for locally made cotton garments.
Then there is mismanagement of farmers’ co-operatives and exploitation by middlemen. The DoFC is striving to revitalise the societies through training and enforcement of standards.