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Farmers tipped to adopt BT maize for higher yields

State actors at the County and National levels have been challenged to engage Extension Services personnel to sensitise Farmers to adopt the tested and tried BT maize to improve production.

Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) is a species of bacteria that produces proteins that are toxic to certain insects. Because of this, it has been used as a safe microbial insecticide for over 50 years to control pest caterpillars.

Dr. Joel Ochieng, lead of Agricultural Biotechnology Programme at the University of Nairobi, said Kenya loses 60 percent of its maize at the farm level due to the stem borer pest, which BT maize can address.

Speaking during a visit to the counties of Baringo, West Pokot, Trans-Nzoia and Uasin Gishu, he explained that BT maize has been enhanced to protect itself from stem borer and modern biotech has been used to transfer the gene from a bacterium into maize to address the challenge.

Dr. Ochieng noted that Kenyans have been using a lot of pesticides to spray their maize, which is not good for the environment and also makes maize more expensive at the retail price.

“We are losing 400,000 metric tonnes of maize each year, which is equivalent to what we are importing and if measures were taken to control the stem borer pest, we would not import and looking at it in terms of money, we are talking of a serious matter in terms of economy, employment and household incomes”, he noted.

Dr. Ochieng said sensitising the public and a population of 50 million or more is impossible to reach individually, and therefore they are engaging in Training of Trainers (ToTs), who will in turn be able to reach others through a ripple effect.

He expressed optimism, saying that the BT maize adoption, which had already been approved in the country after being checked for safety measures and tested in a confined field in Makueni side by side with conventional maize and seen to restore yields, should be the way to go to improve household productivity.

He noted that political interference has hindered the adoption of the technology, saying that even as they sensitise the public, there are others who are out and doing the opposite and spreading propaganda intended to stop people from embracing it.

A ban on Genetically Modified (GM) foods that was imposed in 2012 was lifted by the new Cabinet in October 2022 and as the country was moving towards aligning with BT technology, some members of parliament rejected the move, petitioned the government and rallied their followers to reject the products.

“We are now using the best and most simplistic language to sensitise Kenyans on how genetic engineering is a harmless bacterium combined with maize and how it enhances and protects maize against insects,” he said.

Dr. Ochieng noted that before the current space of sensitization on the GM issue, almost all counties were on board, but after the ban that was politically instigated imposed, many people took caution but he added that counties like Baringo, who have tested BT Cotton from the same technology and are seeing productivity levels, are ready for adoption.

He mentioned that at least 28 Counties are ready to adopt the maize technology and are positive and open despite the fear of political repercussions. Therefore, there is a need for sensitization,” he said.

“The Bt maize will enhance farm-level productivity by restoring yields. It will also improve food safety by eliminating the pests that make it easier for fungus to infect maize and cause aflatoxin,” Dr. Ochieng, who is also the secretary general of Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium (KUBICO), noted.

Ministers in four North Rift counties noted that eliminating pest damage to maize and other crops using genetic engineering may enhance food security, improve food safety and reduce recurrent chemical spray, thus protecting the environment.

Trans-Nzoia agriculture minister Phanice Khatundi said biotechnology is a new way of modifying maize in order to realise a better yield.

“Trans Nzoia County is very well known as a grain basket because of the volumes of maize that we produce. Our production last year was about 5 million bags and out of this, 2 million were consumed locally. As a county, we would want to embrace this so that we get to understand what is involved in biotechnology and also involve the public and sensitise them to this technology”, she said.

Trans-Nzoia agriculture minister Phanice Khatundi, Dr. Joel Ochieng, Secretary General Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium (KUBICO) and Trans Nzoia county Crops Officer Kenneth Kagai during a visit to the county

Khatundi, however, noted that in order to embrace any technology, scientists must involve the public and farmers.

She acknowledged that the county saw a decline in terms of production last year because of climate change and reduced farm inputs, but said that with the subsidies by government on fertiliser and the Mbegu initiative that the county came up with to give more than 100,000 households maize seedings, they aim to improve production this year.

Baringo Agriculture Executive Risper Chepkonga said technology is an aspect that they embrace and are already growing cotton in the Kerio Valley region.

“We are ready to collaborate on sensitising farmers because we need our County to be food secure. We cannot say no to modern biotechnologies, though there are concerns here and there that experts need to address. Counties need to be at the forefront of ensuring that farmers understand these technologies before they can embrace them,” she added.

“Because of the trials locally on the BT cotton, we have learned that one uses fewer sprays in terms of managing the crop and that money farmers use in managing pests and other diseases would go into other uses that we really need”, Chepkonga said.

West Pokot CEC Wilfred Longronyang called for organised demonstration farms on the insect-protected BT maize for the farming community, saying seeing is believing and thus farmers need to physically see the technology and acknowledge its safety in order to adopt.

The BT maize research was part of Kenya’s 10-year Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy, which is intended to build on previous strategies to transform the country’s agricultural sector by 2029 and make it a regional powerhouse.

It emphasises integrating modern farming techniques into Kenya’s agricultural sector to improve productivity and the strategy includes lifting Kenya’s ban on GM crops.

In October last year, less than a month into office, President William Ruto announced the lifting of a 10-year ban on GM crops, saying the move would help address food insecurity at a time when more than 4.1 million Kenyans are facing hunger.

Through civil society organisations, two court cases challenging the lifting of the ban are currently in the High Court, which consequently puts a temporary hold on GMO maize imports and cultivation.

By Wangari Ndirangu

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