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KALRO’s GMO maize seeds to address food shortage 

The Kenya Agricultural, Livestock and Research Organization (KALRO) developed GMO seed maize varieties might be the best way to alleviate the country from food insecurity and poor nutrition.

This comes even as it emerged that the GMO maize varieties developed by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in partnership with other stakeholders in a project dubbed TELA are ready for commercialization and planting, with the distribution to farmers slated for early next year.

The TELA project is said to be a public-private partnership of the Kenyan government and other partners including the USAID, Bayer, African Agricultural Technology Foundations (AATF), International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), and focuses on initiating the commercialization of improved insect-pest and drought-tolerant maize varieties.

According to the Principal Biosafety Officer with the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) Eric Korir, the project has already granted KALRO the license to develop GMO maize varieties for commercialization.

The senior NBA official was quoted in Kilimo news saying that KALRO was now in the process of registering the GMO maize seed varieties with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) before engaging in seed-bulking to facilitate distribution to farmers for cultivation.

He added that NBA would conduct a post-Release commercialization monitoring to check if there will be any adverse results of the GMO maize for the next 20 years, after which, he said, the law would not require them to monitor it again, leading to its deregulation.

According to a maize breeder with KALRO James Karanja, the country has an annual maize deficit of 11 million bags which he said has resulted in 23 million people suffering from food insecurity with 4.3 million others facing starvation.

While acknowledging that maize was important for food and livelihoods, with a high annual per capita consumption of 80 kgs or 200g daily, Karanja regretted that maize yields in the country were on a declining trend.

Maize production in the country, according to the KALRO scientist, was very low with the yields standing at 1.8 tonnes per hectare compared to the global yield of 4.9 tonnes per hectare and attributed the low maize production to direct yield loss to stem borer and fall armyworm in addition to losses in maize seed production fields and loss in regional and international trade due to loss in quality of the maize produced.

The risk to human and livestock health from aflatoxins, and costly pesticides at Sh. 12,000 per acre and pesticide load impacts on the environment and human health were also said to have contributed to the poor maize yields.

Karanja who was quoted in Kilimo news, however, said the KALRO-developed GMO maize is insect resistant maize variety as they were developed using genes from a common soil-dwelling bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) through genetic engineering methods to enable Bt crystalline proteins (delta endotoxins) to be expressed by the Bt maize plants.

He explained that Bt endotoxins were very specific to target insect pests and have no unfavorable effects on humans, livestock, and the environment adding that the Bt trait was in many other crops including cotton, potato, and tobacco.

“Bt maize is safe and is grown in 29 countries with 42 countries importing its products,” assured Karanja.

Karanja added that the Bt maize varieties have developed fully control of the stem borer pest and partially but significantly control the fall armyworm.

Bt maize, he added will increase maize production for food and livestock feed with the productivity expected to rise from 8-17 bags per acre to 28-35 bags per acre with proper and adequate use of fertilizer/manure application.

The KALRO scientist predicted that the Bt maize would reduce annual maize imports occasioned by the current shortage from 4 to 12 million bags (90 kg bag).

He also added that the Bt maize will improve the quality of maize due to a reduced number of rotten grains by reducing the occurrence of ear molds which are lower levels of carcinogenic aflatoxins produced by molds.

Although the Bt maize seeds have been given a clean bill of health like the convectional seeds, Karanja said once the seed companies begin producing them, farmers would be given the freedom to choose what they want to plant as they will be clearly labelled as GMO seeds.

Kenya had prohibited the cultivation of GMOs alongside the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations since 2012 after a controversial study in France that linked the products to cancer. The study was later discredited and removed from the publishing journal.

A survey by Route to Food, done last year, found that 57 per cent of Kenyans were against GMOs due to their link to cancer-one of the biggest non-communicable diseases, which experts have reiterated has no medical basis.

“Lifting the ban opens the gates for the importation of GMO products to help boost food security in Kenya and her neighboring countries, as they will “be able to access emergency food aid through the United Nations’ World Food Programme,” reckons Dr. Roy Mugiira, CEO, National Biosafety Authority of Kenya (NBA), the government agency that oversees GMOs.

NBA board chair Joseph Chavuta said the 10-year ban was imposed because there was little information on GMOs, but “now the country feels that there is enough information to embrace GMOs as a tool to alleviate food shortages. “The technology has been with us, and extensive research has been done,” he said, adding that research will guarantee the sustainability of biotechnology in agriculture.

By Esther Mwangi and Charloth Chepkemoi

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