Time to transform the agriculture sector is now

By Francis Nang'ayo

For agriculture to make its rightful contribution to the development of Kenya, transforming smallholder farming from subsistence to an innovative, commercially oriented and modern sector is critical.

But this is only possible if farmers, producers, processors and marketers employ the most contemporary methods.

Drought and pests have adversely affected the productivity of maize, the staple food for more than 80 per cent of the population.

The problem of pest attack is further compounded by the high cost of, and occasional adulteration, of pesticides found in the market making them ineffective.

In Kenya, stem borers alone are known to reduce maize production by an average of 13 per cent or 400,000 tonnes, equivalent to the normal yearly quantity the country imports to meet recurrent deficits.

The good news is that it is possible to reverse the trend. Indeed, tripling national average yields of major crop and livestock production systems is easily achievable as demonstrated by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. WEMA brings together seven partners including national agricultural research systems of Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda; the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto.

For the last five years, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), together with national and international research organisations through the WEMA project, has been conducting trials on a genetically-modified maize that is resistant to stem borers. This Bt maize has the ability to protect itself from insect pests because it contains a gene derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria that is naturally present in soil and widely used as a biological pesticide by organic crop producers.

The Bt gene protects the plant from stem borers because it produces a protein that cannot be digested by the insects, but is harmless to humans.

In addition, the maize reduces the need for frequent spraying with expensive insecticide chemicals that are harmful to humans and the environment.

Results from tests carried out in Kenya show that the WEMA Bt maize effectively controls stem borers without the need for insecticides.

Even better news is that the varieties also recorded a yield increase of 3.7 tonnes per hectare above the best commercial hybrid used in the trials.

Following successful confined field trials carried out by Kalro in Kenya, WEMA Project has gathered sufficient performance and safety data on Bt maize, and proceeded to file an application for consideration for approval for environmental release by the National Biosafety Authority.

If the authority grants approval for environmental release of Bt maize in Kenya, further trials will proceed in accordance with existing national policy, legislation, guidelines and procedures governing  variety testing, release and gazettement new plant varieties.

Dr Nang’ayo is Senior Manager for Regulatory Affairs at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation

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