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Biotechnology the answer to food shortages

Sunday September 11 2011

By GILBERT arap BOR

The United States has survived its debt-ceiling showdown, but it found an extra $17 million (Sh1.58 billion) for famine relief in East Africa.

This new commitment boosts the amount of aid for Ethiopia, Somalia and my country Kenya to more than $580 million (Sh54 billion) this year. The aid will reach 4.6 million people.

The long-term solution to our perennial problem is that we must start to “break the cycle” of food shortages, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, so that we can support ourselves.

We must accept 21st century agricultural methods, including biotechnology and modern fertilisers, as the best way for farmers to increase their yields and start to make it possible for the continent to feed itself.

Kenya took a positive first step by gazetting the biosafety regulations on 15 August, thus paving the way for commercialisation of GM crops. The country is now fully compliant with the international requirements on the development and utilisation of biotechnology. It is the fourth African country to do so after Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa.

For years, Kenyans have battled fears about biotechnology crops. It is our hope that Agriculture minister Sally Kosgei put these worries to rest with her blunt comment that “I have been consuming soya beans imported from Britain which are GMO, yet they have not had an effect on my health.”

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The Catholic bishops of Kenya have embraced biotechnology. They endorsed the government’s decision to permit GM crops, advising people to eat genetically modified foods to check starvation.

This is in direct contrast to opposition by some non-governmental organisations and MPs to a government plan to import genetically modified maize from South Africa.

I agree with Dr Kosgei and the bishops. I plan to grow GM crops on my small farm as soon as possible because it will help my land produce more food.

All Kenyan farmers should welcome biotechnology, just as the previous generation welcomed hybrid seeds.

The other crucial ingredient for agricultural success is fertiliser. African farmers do not use enough of it — far less than their counterparts elsewhere, according to the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme.

In North America, farmers put more than 200 kgs of fertiliser on each hectare they cultivate. In East and Southern Asia, the figure is 135 kgs, South Asia 100 kgs, and Latin America 73 kgs. Sub-Saharan Africa’s average fertiliser use is a mere 9 kgs.

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. Prices for fertiliser are two to six times the world average, supplies are low due to poor infrastructure, while some farmers do not understand the value of using fertiliser.

Bureaucratic obstacles also get in the way. In his book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey Sachs cites evidence suggesting that if African smallholder farms took advantage of modern technologies — and especially fertiliser — their yields could increase tenfold.

Higher productivity is the ultimate solution to Africa’s food insecurity. Biotechnology and use of fertiliser are two of its essential ingredients.

Mr Bor practises small-scale farming in Kapseret, near Eldoret. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.

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