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Researchers push for adoption of biotechnology to fight aflatoxin

Sunday July 26 2020
MAIZE

Moses Muiru (left), a maize trader in Elburgon, Nakuru County, checks the moisture level of the produce in his store on November 7, 2019. Cold weather exposes maize to aflatoxin. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By STANLEY KIMUGE

Researchers are pushing for use of biotechnology to tackle aflatoxin in maize and other crops, which results in a drop in production.

Dr James Karanja, a BT maize lead scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), said the adoption of the technology can provide protection against pests that damage maize and other crops, presenting an opportunity for fungi attack.

“Even if farmers use chemicals to control pests like fall armyworm (FAW) from growth to cob stage, it becomes difficult to do so at flowering or cob stage since the plantation is overgrown. The pest will then feed on the cob as high temperatures provide a window for moulds to infest the maize cob. This mould is what causes aflatoxin,” he said.

TECHNOLOGY

Dr Karanja noted that the stem borer has resulted in a drop in maize yields by 4.7 million while FAW 23.4 million bags but the technology will tackle these pests.

Agriculture PS Hamadi Boga also observed that biotechnology can provide a solution to the aflatoxin menace in maize, the country's staple food.

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He said that they are in talks with the Afla-zero firm to eliminate aflatoxin.

Maize infested by pests such as fall armyworm is exposed to fungi infestation, which in turn releases aflatoxin.

“The use of Afla-zero (even if the maize has aflatoxin) involves ozone (03), which is a very powerful oxidizant so it oxidises maize with aflatoxin to zero. We are in talks with the company to set up here in the country.”

“I hope that once we have this technology, we will eradicate the aflatoxin problem, which causes losses to farmers and harms the consumers,” added the PS.

He noted that Aflasafe, which was released in the market last year, is one form of biotechnology.

“Aflasafe is a form of biotechnology (not genetically-modified) where you use other fungi that belong to the same species as the one that causes aflatoxin. When this is applied in soils in large quantities, it pushes the other one out so that it infects the maize but it is safe,” said Prof Boga.

Last week, National Biosafety Authority chief executive Dorington Ogoyi observed that the agency and National Environment Management Authority have given a greenlight for the BT-Maize varieties to be grown in six maize-growing agro-ecological zones in two seasons during the short rains.

STEM BORER

“The trials for BT maize varieties were delayed due to Covid-19. They are now going to be carried out in a number of Kalro sites that include Embu, Thika, Kakamega, Alupe, Kibos and Mwea. The applicant (Kalro) has also been issued with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) license,” said Prof Ogoyi.

Dr Karanja said that the trials will test for efficacy against notorious stem borer and fall armyworm.

According to Prof Ogoyi, the BT maize varieties, if they are approved by the relevant government agencies, are expected to be commercialised by 2022. The biotech crops have sparked debate.

Proponents say biotechnology offers opportunities to develop crop varieties that address challenges facing production. But opponents have expressed concern about the human and environmental safety of the technology.

The Health ministry banned imports of GMO food in 2012 over safety concerns. Mary Nzomo, the agriculture county executives’ forum chairperson, said the country should embrace biotech crops to attain food security.

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