Agriculture and Livestock Development Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi last month urged Kenyans to consume more rice, potatoes and other carbohydrates in the midst of a crisis occasioned by high maize prices.
In the past, leaders across the globe have called for diversification of diet to reduce over-reliance on maize. This is because maize production, the staple in most African countries, has been declining due to a multiplicity of factors—like high input costs; poor harvests owing to dwindling soil fertility and climate change; and a shift by disillusioned farmers to better-paying high-value crops.
Diversifying diets and consuming other forms of starch such as cassava, rice, sweet potato and yams can ensure food security and improve nutrition. These are often more resilient to environmental stresses with lower input requirements than maize, making them more sustainable and accessible foods.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says Africa imported 47 million tonnes of wheat in 2020 to supplement local production. Kenya imported 2.4 million tonnes of wheat in 2021 and spends millions of dollars every year on rice imports from India, Tanzania, Burma and Thailand while production of cassava and both Irish and sweet potatoes is hampered by diseases, pests and poor-quality seed.
Most African countries, including Kenya, are, therefore, food-insecure with the 2021 Global Hunger Index showing 23 per cent of the population sleeps hungry. Overall, the national consumption of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, fish and red meat falls below national and global targets.
Africa’s inability to produce sufficient food is blamed on dependence on rain-fed agriculture. Smallholders, who produce 78 per cent of Kenya’s food, grapple with unpredictable rainfall patterns and an increasing cycle of prolonged droughts linked to climate change.
Another handicap is the prevalence of crop diseases such as the maize stem borer and the quality of seeds planted by farmers. For instance, while potato is Kenya’s second staple, harvests average 10 tonnes per acre as opposed to 20-25 tonnes because farmers lack access to quality, disease-free seeds.
The dairy sector, which accounts for 14 per cent of agricultural sector’s GDP, is strained by high livestock feed prices, making it difficult for farmers to break even.
It is with this in mind that last year’s lifting of the ban on importation and open cultivation of GMOs should be viewed. With food safety, health and environment risks allayed by enactment of a strong regulatory framework, the country can exploit GM technology to achieve food, nutrition and financial security for farmers.
This technology could be used to develop foods that are drought-resistant, not only increasing the resilience of the staples to climate change but also opening up arid and semi-arid lands to cultivation of grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables. That would improve nutrition and enhance food and financial security for local communities.
Disease-resistant crop varieties could be developed to improve maize, cassava and potato production, translating to reduced disease and pest control costs, sufficient yields for sale after domestic consumption and, ultimately, more income for the farmers.
With cash in their pockets, farmers would be able to purchase more nutritious foods for their families, resulting in better health. This, in turn, would boost cognitive development in children while increasing economic production among adults—a plus for the economy.
Use of GMO maize and soya as raw material, on the other hand, would reduce cost of livestock feeds by 20 per cent, enabling farmers to keep more stock and earn more.
Biotechnology is, however, not an independent magic pill for the country’s food crisis. To achieve food, nutrition and financial security for farmers, GM technology should be harnessed in tandem with increased investment in irrigation, better farming methods and early warning systems to improve the resilience of farmers to climate change.
It also means that mechanisms for water harvesting and storage for irrigation in dry seasons should be appropriately improved.
Dr Kanangire, PhD, is the executive director of AATF. C.Kanangire @aatf-africa.org.