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Pathway to embrace BT maize for food security complete

Scientists have completed research on Genetically Modified Maize and the material is now awaiting final approval before being released to farmers.

Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) had in 2016 granted a conditional approval for the environmental release of the insect resistant Bt maize for National Performance Trials (NPT) although the GM testing in the country started way back in 2010.

If approved, farmers will be able to have GM maize by this year’s short rainy season according to the lead Principal Investigator in the research from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) James Karanja.

Speaking on Wednesday during the last harvest of the NPTs by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) at the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) – Kandara station,  Karanja said that there have been six NPTs in Kibos Kisumu, Alupe in Busia, Mwea in Kirinyaga, Kandara in Muranga and Kalro stations in Embu and Kakamega.

He explained that the normal research process starts in the lab, then goes to the greenhouse then the Confined Field Trials (CFT) or the on-station trials and thereafter the plant material is submits to the National Performance Trial (NPT) which is independently run by KEPHIS.

“This is the last journey towards commercialization of GM maize in Kenya. After the harvest, all the data will be taken by KEPHIS where they are going to do the analysis,” he said.

He noted that out of the six maize varieties that they had submitted for evaluation at the NPT, they hope there will be at least one or two that will perform well and show its tolerance to the fall armyworm and the stem borer.

“Our initial submitted application however made by KALRO and African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) was more or less focusing on being tolerance to the stem borer”, he explained.

Karanja noted that once KEPHIS is through with the analysis, they will then recommend the best variety for release to NPT committee who in turn will submit their report to National Performance Release Committee (NPRC) who will analyse the data and select the best variety which must be tolerant to the steam borer as per the application.

“It must also have a good yield against the others. Then the committee will submit their report to the National Variety Release Committee (NVRC) which is chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture and this is the committee that is going to do the approval,” said Karanja.

The committee is expected to meet and discuss about the research findings by June, after which farmers will know the best variety that was selected to go for commercialization.

The researchers, Karanja further said will also be required to write to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) seeking approval for commercialisation of the Bt maize since the approval that is currently in place is limited to field cultivation allowing only performance trials at various sites in the country.

“If there will be no other requirement, the maize variety that is tolerant to the deadly stem borer and army worm should be out with the farmers by August or early next year,” Karanja said.

During the harvest that also involves disposal of the research material, Karanja said in normal GMO trials, people are known to burn and bury the materials but for them disposing can also be milling it, chopping the stalks and then ploughing it back to the field for manure.

“The regulations say you should destroy the material and we feel this is the most convenient and sustainable way of destroying the material and not burning. When you burn you interfere with so many other things. In all the six sites, we have been milling the maize, chopping the stalks and spreading it back on the field showing no negative effect,” he said.

To show the benefits of technology, Karanja said that throughout the process they involved stakeholders from farmers, regulatory agents, religious leaders and legislators in order to demystify the negative idea that GMO is bad.

KALRO Director General Eliud Kireger says that the approval of the WEMA / TELA Bt maize will go a long way in mainstreaming the use of science, technology and innovation in boosting Kenya’s food security.

“This maize will directly contribute to Kenya’s national aspirations and goals of improving the agricultural sector through use and adoption of appropriate technologies to address national food security and also to Kenya’s Vision 2030 and the sustainable development goals”, the Kalro DG said.

Prof. Hamadi Boga, Principal Secretary State Department of Agriculture and Food Crops says there is need to overcome our inhibitions about GMOs and added that with the adoption of technology Kenya has the potential to produce 80 million bags of maize annually, an improvement from current production of  17 million bags.

African countries that have already authorised the sale of GM crops include Burkina Faso, South Africa and Sudan.

 By Wangari Ndirangu

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