The fall armyworm crisis has brought to the fore one of the multifaceted failures that characterise the sad state of affairs in Kenya’s agriculture.
Ours is an agrarian economy and any shocks due to diseases, pests or climate change leave farmers susceptible to severe losses besides heightening the risk of starvation. The resultant instability in commodity prices influences inflation.
It, therefore, makes sense to find a solution to the predicament; hence the in-creasing calls for adoption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) technology in agriculture.
Indeed, genetic engineering (GE) is a potent tool to combat plant diseases. In many places, it has proved effective in developing plants that are resistant to pests, such as the European corn borer in the United States, and viruses such as the one that was the cause of papaya ringspot in Hawaii.
However, GE is not the panacea for all crop problems. Usually, its success depends on the availability of what scientists call “simple genetic traits”.
For example, if GE is to be applied against fall armyworms, the resistance to the pest has to be mediated by ideally one or a few genes. If many genes are involved, GE just cannot work.
The phenomenon makes the resistance trait complex — as with most pest and disease resistances in plants. GE has, hence, been used in breeding for only a handful of crops and a few traits.
The US has the highest number of GM crops with only 10 commercially produced as GMOs. They are maize, soybean, papaya, canola, alfalfa, cotton, sugar beet, squash, potato and apple.
For a vast majority of agriculturally important traits such as yield and most pest and disease resistances, there exists a wide array of technologies for improved crop varieties — including conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding and genomic selection.
While the debate on whether or not cultivation of GMOs should be allowed in Kenya rages, it is not the magic bullet to our food security challenges.
Instead, the government needs to heavily invest in agricultural research, attracting and retaining skilled scientists and incentivising the translation of research output into improved crop varieties. Even after the fall armyworm scourge, cli-mate change and other emerging pests and diseases will give us greater challenges to contend with.
The only way to assure food security is to anticipate these challenges and build responsive rather than reactive agricultural systems.
For every crop production region, we need teams of soil scientists, plant breeders, plant pathologists and agronomists constantly working in concert to develop improved varieties for future release.
Also needed are properly functioning seed systems to facilitate scaled production of improved seeds. Also vital is good infrastructure to convey produce to markets.
While I support speedy adoption of GE in Kenya, the issues plaguing our agriculture are more complex than is admitted. But we have the requisite resources intellectually and otherwise to turn the tide.
Mr Gimode is a graduate research assistant at the Institute of Plant Breeding Genetics and Genomics (IPBGG), University of Georgia, USA. [email protected]