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Adopting Bt cotton will clear the way for high farm yields in Kenya

Sunday January 26 2020

Bt cotton

Bt cotton is grown at a Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation farm in Kibos, Kisumu County, on June 11, 2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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On December 19, the Cabinet approved commercial growing of Bt cotton.

After five years of field trials with excellent results, Kenyan scientists and farmers are excited about this announcement.

Soon, Kenyan farmers will join the global fraternity of 17 countries that grow over 50 million acres of Bt cotton annually.

I witnessed the struggles of small-scale cotton production and the National Performance Trials (NPT) of Bt cotton when I visited Kenya last June.

It’s clear to me that Kenyan farmers can expect tremendous yield increases and reduced pesticide costs with Bt cotton.

Genetically engineered (GE) crops have been commercially and environmentally successful for 25 years.


In the past year, over 400 million acres of GE crops were planted in 26 countries, including 21 developing ones.

Evaluation of GE crops demonstrates that adoption of this technology has increased farmer profits by 68 per cent and increased crop yields by 22 per cent while reducing chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent.


The technology offers benefits to farmers that other agricultural methods do not. They quickly learn what works and what does not.

Adoption rates are often over 90 per cent within a few years of each new GE crop commercial release.

One of the most successful GE crops uses proteins borrowed from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

By adding these proteins to conventional crops, ‘Bt crops’ protect themselves from insect attack, allowing less pesticide use while increasing yields.

By adopting Bt cotton, Kenya joins a growing list of nations, which have embraced it.

After India commercialised the crop in 2002, more than 96 per cent of the cotton varieties grown in the country are Bt.

Production nearly doubled as India became the biggest cotton producer. Sudan commercialised Bt cotton in 2012; today, 95 per cent of its 400,000 acres of cotton are Bt varieties.

Kenya has been at the forefront of GE crop research and development in sub-Saharan Africa.


The Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation (Kalro) has ongoing confined field trials of several other GE crops.

The goal is to give farmers the tools to grow more food on the same or less land more sustainably.

In 2016, the Kenyan National Biosafety Authority granted researchers permission to carry out confined field trials with drought- or insect-resistant maize. It was also the first year fall armyworm (FAW) damage was detected in Africa.

This GE crop combines conventionally bred drought-tolerant maize with Bt genes to resist insect attack and drought.

East Africa suffers widespread fungal contamination of maize. The fungi produce nasty toxins called mycotoxins. This GE maize also reduces mycotoxin levels, making it healthier.

Four years of successful field trials and escalating devastation from FAW lend support to advancing this GE crop to the National Performance Trials (one of the last steps to commercial release).


Cassava is a staple food for hundreds of millions of people across Africa.

But entire crops can be lost to diseases such as the Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) virus and the Cassava Brown Streak Virus (CBSV).

Kenyan researchers helped to develop GE cassava that is resistant to these viral pests. They also developed protein-enriched cassava to help with chronic protein deficiencies.

Unsubstantiated fear stories have stopped many counties from benefiting from GE crop technology.

Twenty-five years of commercial GE crop production in other parts of the world have demonstrated that, large or small, rich or poor, all farmers benefit from growing GE crops.

In the past month, China, India, Bangladesh, Philippines and Nigeria have all moved GE crop development towards commercial release.

It is wonderful to see Kenyan politicians leading the way for East Africa. Nobody can stop an idea whose time has come.

Mr Wager, a molecular biologist, teaches at Vancouver Island University, Canada. [email protected] @RobertWager1