Bright day for Biosciences in Kenya as NBA approves release of Bt maize

By Daniel Otunge, AATF

In a bold, historic move, the Kenya NBA (National Biosafety Authority) has granted approval for environmental release of Bt Maize.

Left: History in the making: WEMA team submits application to NBA on 2 April 2015

This approval, which was purely based on evidence provided by the applicants, culminates a long journey that started in April 2, 2015 when the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) and African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) submitted an application for approval of environmental release of the insect protected (Bt) maize in Kenya to the Authority.

According to Dr Eliud Kireger, KALRO Director General, and Dr Denis Kyetere, AATF Executive Director, the approval will enable movement to the next step of NPTs (National Performance Trials). NPTs will lead to identification of suitable varieties that will be availed to farmers affected by stem borers.

Socio-economic studies available show that Stem borers cost Kenya nearly USD 90 million from the loss of 400,000 tons of maize each year – equivalent to the total amount of maize that Kenya imports

Results of the three-year trials by KALRO show that Bt Maize effectively controls maize infestation and damage by the two major insect pests affecting maize production in Kenya – the spotted stem borer (Chilo partellus) and the African stem borer (Busseola fusca),

The approval of the WEMA Bt maize will go a long mainstreaming the use of science, Technology and innovation in boosting Kenya’s food security. It is notable that food insecurity is still a challenge for Kenya that is faced with recurrent food shortages, especially maize, which occasionally necessitate food imports.

Whole announcing the decision to WEMA Project teams currently meeting in Dares Salaam, Tanzania, to review the project’s progress , Dr Kireger said WEMA Bt maize will directly contribute to Kenya’s national aspirations and goals of improving the agricultural sector through use and adoption of appropriate technologies to address national food security.

He added that the environmental and eventual commercial release of WEMA Bt maize will contribute to Kenya’s vision 2030 and the sustainable development goals and reaffirms Kenya’s regional leadership on use of Science, Technology and Innovation as driver for her socio-economic development.

For decades, countries planting Bt maize have recorded the following significant benefits offered by the insect protected varieties to farmers and consumers. They include higher yields, low production cost, reduced application of insecticides, better human and environmental health and improved grain quality with low aflatoxin contamination.

The NBA move is commendable because farmers in Kenya, like the rest of Africa, need a range of options, including access to GM technology, to increase their yields and tackle food insecurity.

“This will help farmers harvest enough to feed their families, and get a surplus which they can sell to increase their incomes and help strengthen local communities’, Dr Kyetere added.

Bt maize has been safely used in other countries for nearly 20 years, with more than 25 countries growing it today. The Bt contained in the current approval is also found in Bt sprays which are used in organic farming in Kenya.

Like other regulatory bodies worldwide, the approval by the NBA validates the safety of Bt products as has been confirmed through detailed food, feed and environmental safety assessments by multiple global health societies, independent scientific experts and dozens of governments around the world.

In addition, the verdict is consistent with the agreement by other regulatory bodies in more than 20 countries in the world that the Bt Maize is safe for food, feed and fiber.

What is next? Following approval, the two leaders said the applicants (KALRO and AATF) will liaise with Kenyan statutory regulators, especially KEPHIS (Kenya Plant Health Service), NEMA (National Environment Management Authority) and NBA to plan for NPTs in compliance with the conditions underpinning the approval.

In line with the variety release process in Kenya, this will take about two planting season (about two calendar years) before the maize is eventually released to farmers. The Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries will then release to the market proven varieties suitable for the various regions in Kenya.

The commercialization of Bt Maize in Kenya will mark a turning point for GM crops adoption in East Africa and indeed the entire COMESA region. WEMA project is implemented in five countries (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa). RSA is already growing Bt and drought tolerant GM maize varieties.

Commercial release in Kenya means such seeds will be readily available in Uganda and Tanzania. This means the two countries ought to speed up the process of legal allowing their farmers to plant GM crops, otherwise farmers will run ahead of them as have happened in many countries around the world.

And there should be no course for alarm. First GM crops testing began in the 1980s. There have now been more than 2,500 regulatory approvals granted by 60 countries on more than 300 GM products globally.

In additional renowned global bodies like WHO (UN World Health Organization), the AMA (American Medical Association), the FAO (UN-Food and Agricultural Organization), and the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) have reviewed the data on GM crops and are in agreement that they are safe for human and livestock consumption.

Drs Kyetere and Kireger hailed the NBA decision as bold and visionary, noting it will put Kenya in the global map as a progressive country whose development agenda is driven by evidence-based policies.

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