Kenya is two steps closer to adopting genetically modified maize after researchers submitted their filed trial report to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Last year, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the state agency mandated to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country, approved the varieties to be grown in six counties the under National Performance Trials (NPT) from October.
“From the results, biotech maize varieties produced better yields than other breeds. We have submitted our report to the ministry for a decision on the biotech maize,” said Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) Managing Director Theophilus Mutui.
The biosafety agency and the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) had given the green light for the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) maize varieties to be grown in six maize growing agro-ecological zones in two seasons during the short rains under the trials.
In Bt maize, the gene of interest has been taken from the bacterium to make the crop resistant to maize borers, eliminating the need to spray the plant with pesticides.
The NPT trials were carried out at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) sites in Embu, Thika, Kakamega, Alupe, Kibos and Mwea.
The research on GM maize began with confined field trials in 2008 under Wema (water efficient maize for Africa) project before moving to the NPTs last year. If approved by NBA and Nema, it could pave way for farmer demonstration, and finally, open cultivation or commercialisation of the crop.
The NBA is now expected to assess the impact of GM maize on human, animal health and the environment whereas Nema will assess its impact on the environment, then they will either approve or reject the maize.
The Cabinet is expected to make a final decision on the commercialisation of the maize.
The Bt maize, scientists believe, is set to increase production from the current national average of 1.5 tonnes per hectare to an average of five tonnes a hectare, translating into more than 80 million bags of maize harvested annually, from the current 42 million bags.
Kenya’s maize production has fluctuated in the past eight years, with its highest production being in 2018 when it produced 44.6 million bags, and the lowest being in 2017 when country only produced 35.4 million bags of the staple food.
The country churned out 40.7 million bags in 2013, 39 million in 2014, 42.5 million in 2015, 37.8 million in 2016, and 39.8 million in 2019, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.
“Because of infestation of pests, our farmers struggle with drought, low soil moisture and carbon, thus have yield gap of an average of 1.5 tonnes per hectare against a global target of 4.9 tonnes per hectare, then this is a loss which we can mitigate with the adoption of this Bt maize,” Agriculture Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga said in Thika during a field trip of the Bt maize trials in February this year.
Pro-Bt maize scientists cite Kenya’s battle with aflatoxin in maize — which led to the destruction of 124,625 50-kilogramme bags of condemned maize stocks last year —to push for the new variety of the crop.
The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) estimates that the stem borer destroys 12 percent of the nation’s maize production, equivalent to Sh9.6 billion, while the fall armyworm causes an average maize loss of 60 percent — losses scientists said would be avoided with the introduction of the Bt maize.
The NPT trials tested the GM maize’s efficacy against the notorious stem borer and fall armyworm.
In recent years, Kenya has been importing maize to meet local demand and cushion households against high cost of flour due to declining maize production in the country.
On Wednesday, NBA’s chief executive, Prof Dorington Ogoyi, told the Nation that the agency had received the results and would hold consultative meetings before making a decision.
“The board will be meeting this week to discuss the results presented by scientists from Kephis and we expect to make a decision as soon as next week,” said Prof Ogoyi.
GM crops have elicited debate among proponents and opponents. Proponents say biotechnology offers opportunities to develop crop varieties that address challenges facing production. But opponents have expressed concern about the human and environmental safety of the technology.
The Health ministry banned imports of GM food in 2012 over safety concerns, riding on the now discredited Gilles-Eric Seralini publication that linked genetically modified foods to cancer. But the ministry has stated that the ban will be lifted on a case-by-case basis.
In 2019, Kenya, through the Cabinet, approved commercial farming of Bt cotton, making it the first biotech crop to be planted in the country after years of research and debate.
In April last year, the Ministry of Agriculture distributed one tonne of Bt cotton seeds for planting on demonstration plots covering 10,000 hectares to pilot and raise awareness on the transgenic cotton varieties.