Ten African countries will have adopted biotech crops by 2015, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) official said last week.
ISAAA Director, Dr Margaret Karembu said in Nairobi that already three African countries, namely South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt are already commercialising biotech crops and have planted these crops on 2.5 million hectares of land. “Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda are currently conducting field trials while Malawi have approved pending trials has adopted commercial and by 2015 a total of ten countries in Africa will have commercial biotech crops,” Karembu said.
Karembu who was speaking during the launch of a report on Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in Nairobi said that Malawi, Ghana and Togo are also on the path of commercialising genetically modified crops. “The implementation of appropriate regulation will however be essential if the countries are to fully commercialize the biotech crops,” she said.
Karembu said that the trials which are focusing on the continent’s pro-poor staple crops including maize, cassava, banana and sweet potato are making good progress. “There are also trials going on to introduce drought resistant maize with on-going second season trials in three countries, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda,” she said.
Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) Researcher, Dr. Simon Gichuki said that biotech crops will help Kenya deal with the traditional constraints to agricultural productivity such as weeds, pests and drought. “Through the use of technology, Kenya can improve its crops yields and thereby increase its food security,” Gichuki said. Karembu said that biotech crops reduce the need for application of pesticides which is a major cost for farmers while at the same time increases yields from the field. “Food insecurity exacerbated by high and unaffordable food prices is a formidable challenge to which biotech crops can contribute but are not a panacea,” she added. “Egypt and Burkina Faso have 50,000 hectares and 300,000 hectares respectively under biotech cotton, while South Africa has 2.3 million hectares under biotech maize, soybean and cotton,” Karembu said. She said that the most dominant trait for the biotech crops is herbicide tolerance.
South Africa is currently conducting field trials on genetically modified potato and sugar cane while Nigeria is conducting trials on cowpeas and cassava. Globally 29 countries have adapted biotech crops. Meanwhile, Kenyan lawmakers have backed efforts to fast rack commercialization of genetically modified crops to stave off the country from chronic food insecurity. Kenya has made significant progress in development of a policy and legislative framework that supports large scale cultivation of genetically engineered food crops.
The East Africa’s largest economy in 2009 passed a biosafety act and the national biotechnology development policy to accelerate progress towards cultivation and commercialization of GM crops. According to senior government officials, Kenya has fast racked the commercialization of Bt maize before 2014. The Bt cotton still at the trail stage will also be commercialized in less than two years.
It is hoped that Kenya will become a net exporter of strategic staples in the region upon conclusion of the certification process. Assistant Minister for Education Professor Ayiecho Olweny noted that genetically modified crops heralds a green revolution in Kenya. “There are huge benefits of GM crops to the farmer who is grappling with low crop yields occasioned by pest, diseases, loss of soil fertility and climate vagaries,” Olweny said.
The assistant minister who is a crop scientist has been a vocal proponent of genetically engineered crops during debates in and outside parliament.
“Food insecurity is high in Africa. Maize which is a major staple has serious striga problem that has reduced yields. Cotton has boll-worm and rice has rust. Africa therefore needs this modern technology most to buffer important crops against these deadly pests and diseases,” he said during the launch of the report.
Olweny allayed fears on widespread myths surrounding GM crops in Kenya which is spread by green lobbies. “Legal instruments have been developed to demystify myths surrounding the health and environmental impact of biotech crops,” Olweny said. He added that Kenya has the capacity to produce and handle GM Products. “What is required now is enough government support for scientists to enable them conduct research leading into development of technologies that improve crop productivity,” said Olweny. He urged close collaboration among scientists, policy makers, opinion leaders and civil society to create awareness on the potential of biotechnology to transform Kenya into a net food exporter.
James Rege, lawmaker and chair of Parliamentary Committee on Energy, underscored the role of modern technologies to revolutionize farming and tackle food crises in Kenya. Rege noted that science and technology improves the way people live. “We must embrace it in farming to solve our hunger challenges and boost economic progress to catch up with the rest of the world. “ He endorsed ongoing trials on a range of staple crops geared towards improving their resilience to drought, pests and diseases through genetic engineering.”My constituency Karachuonyo, Western Kenya, grows cotton and will fully support developed of improved varieties that have higher yields and can withstand the vagaries of weather, pests and diseases,” Rege said.