The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) has authorised the release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) seeds and the access for cultivation to the farmers will take place in the 2023 long rainy season.
NBA is a state corporation in Kenya mandated to ensure safety to human and animal health and provide adequate protection of the environment from harmful effects that may result from GMOs.
The approval of the release of seeds through a letter dated last week October 19, 2022 to the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) which has been undertaking the BT trials in the country will be able to see farmers start growing GM maize but after all the necessary modalities are put in place.
The debate following the lifting of the ban of GM maize has for the last one week brought about debates despite President William Ruto saying this could be a solution to a crisis that the country is facing continuously on food shortage.
The approval by the NBA will now be able to prompt the National Variety Release Committee (NVRC) to convene a meeting to further fast track modalities to gazette the BT maize seeds.
NVRC is chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) as the secretariat.
Speaking to journalists during a media engagement at the KALRO Kiboko centre where the confined field trials of the GM maize have been taking place, Principal Biosafety Officer Erick Korir said that with the recent development of lifting of the ban, the developers of the technology (KALRO) will now go the KEPHIS for the varietal registration to approve seed bulking which will now be distributed to farmers to cultivate.
“As NBA we have a role to play and we are required by law and will continue to monitor the GM crop for the next 20 years to ensure and even check on any advanced effects on its cultivation,” he added.
Korir explained that labelling of the product once out in the market, is a requirement but noted that labelling normally is not for safety rather than for traceability in the market in case of any adverse effects and restoration measures.
“Labeling is for consumer choice. It is to inform the public and it is mandatory for the GM packaging just like any other that are normally labelled,” he explained.
Korir assured Kenyans that for any GM product to be approved, it should be just as safe as the conventional variety of any other crop as NBA have the capacity to do all the tests required before the approval.
He further explained now that the GM ban is lifted, countries such as Rwanda and other neighbouring countries who had applied to use Kenya as a transit for their animal feeds now can be able to, as the NBA has in place necessary formulated biosafety regulations touching on contained use, export, import and even transit.
James Karanja, a maize breeder from KALRO and who has been working towards the commercialisation of transgenic drought tolerant and insect protected (TELA) maize said the technology being brought to farmers is just to bring the maize varieties that are tolerant to the insect pests, namely the stem borer and the fall army worm.
“We are now almost coming to the end and just waiting for the seed to be planted by the farmers and see the technology especially now that we are being faced with challenges not only of weather but current drought for the last four seasons,” he added.
He explained that the price of fertiliser for farmers has been high and one of the ways of overcoming this is by giving farmers the best technology of GM maize that will protect farmers from using chemical sprays and not only protect them from infestation of pests but will see improved yields.
“This technology is here to help save farmers’ money used to buy chemicals and guaranteeing them quality in terms of yield as well as their health,” he said adding that Science never lies and is usually supported by facts and data.
Farmers, he explained, had been spending almost Sh 12,000 to protect their plants against pests, a bag of maize has also shifted from Sh 1800 to Sh 2,500 and that to get Unga to cost around Sh 100 bob and below it can only be done if the farmer can save on such costs,” he said.
According to Karanja, the BT maize can be able to double maize productivity from 8-17 bags per acre to 28-35 bags per acre, reduce annual 4 to 12 million bags (90kg bag) maize imports occasioned by shortage and improve quality of maize that occurs on rotten grains as well as lower levels of carcinogenic aflatoxins produced by molds.
“Scientists have finally proved that the lifting of the ban was not misinformed decision and now that we are backed by government and the regulators, we are hoping that come next year, farmers will be able to enjoy the fruits of their daughters and sons through science,” Karanja said.
The GMO lift has come at a time when the country is facing a crisis of drought and farmers are looking for good certified quality seeds that are well protected against pests and this therefore gives room for scientists to continue engaging with NBA and KEPHIS to adopt the technology and ensure farmers get quality seeds that can see the country producing over 50 million bags of maize that is enough for this country’s economy,” Karanja said.
Dr Martin Mwirigi, Ag. Director of Biotechnology research institute at KALRO said that the government has since the 1990s been utilising the biotech to harness the technology.
He noted that the technologies of the GM currently in the public discourse will provide insect resistant crops that will see farmers not use chemicals on their produce.
“We are grateful to the President for lifting the ban as it will open up the whole research including in our education curricular which had seen some universities removing some of the courses aligned to biotechnology,” he said.
Dr Mwirigi added that there is a bright future now saying a country can only develop by taking up of modern technology, enhancing productivity and getting value for money.
On the various myths behind the GM crops, he explained that they are not true as over 70 countries have approved GM animal and also crop and are advanced in terms of food and environmental safety.
“The use of technology has been there for over 25 years with no adverse effects shown and therefore we are coming out with confidence that the technology is safe and institutions such as NBA are able to assess on what the scientist have done and ensure what is going to the market is safe for consumers,” Dr Mwirigi said.
According to KALRO Director General, Dr Eliud Kireger, around 500,000 acres will serve as demonstration plots come next year around March pending the full commercialisation of Bt maize by private companies.
Once the Bt maize is gazetted, KALRO will import 11 metric tonnes from South Africa under the TELA project for planting on the 500,000 acres in time for the 2023 long rains season.
Kenya will now be joining other seven African countries namely Nigeria, South Africa, Eswatini, Malawi, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Ghana currently undertaking GMO crop farming.
By Wangari Ndirangu