Genetically modified maize

KALRO has done a lot of work in sensitizing farmers, politicians and other stakeholders on the importance of Genetically Modified Maize in Kenya through testing Bt maize in confined field trials (CFTs) in Kiboko and Kitale. Bt maize materials in the CFTs have proven to be resistant to insects and drought as compared to the other conventional materials.

Why Shift To Genetically Modified Maize?

GMO maize is maize whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering in order to favour the expression of agriculturally-desirable traits including resistance to pests, herbicides and drought tolerance. Genetically Modified Maize is advantageous because of the following reasons:

a) Insect Resistance

Bt Maize is modified to include genes borrowed from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. The bacterium produces a crystal, Cry, protein that disrupts the gut of insects that ingest it. Bt maize now possesses the insect-killing ability, and shows tolerance to Fall Army Worm. Maize can now be grown where infestation previously destroyed harvests or required large doses of toxic pesticides pumped into the environment, often killing beneficial insects in the process.

b) Disease Resistance

Maize is subject to plant diseases, including fungi and bacteria. While all plants are susceptible to some diseases, some plants can resist diseases that attack others. Another benefit of Genetically Modified Maize is described in an International Council for Science, ICSU, report cited by the “Public Library of Science-Biology.” Corn bioengineered to carry disease resistance genes from naturally resistant plants contain lower levels of mycotoxins, substances produced by fungi growing on insect-infested, non-GMO corn crops. Mycotoxins are potentially carcinogenic to humans.

c) Herbicide Resistance

Agronomists reporting for AgBioWorld describe glyphosate, brand named Roundup, as an example of a weed-killing pesticide to which Genetically Modified Maize has been made resistant. Similar Genetically Modified Maize benefits have been developed for other pesticides.

d) Nutritional quality enhancement

Nutritional quality of food crops can be improved through modem biotechnology. Critical micronutrients (the vitamins and minerals that people need for good health) are enhanced. These micronutrients can be provided to millions of people through the staple foods that they eat every day, foods such as maize, sorghum, sweet potato and wheat. While these staples are often packed full of energy, they usually lack essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc. When people don’t get enough of these micronutrients, they suffer from a hidden hunger. This puts them at increased risk of stunting, anemia, blindness, infectious diseases and even death. Women and children are especially vulnerable.

GMO Maize in Kenya

Agriculture cabinet secretary Willy Bett, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) managing director Dr Esther Kimani, Kalro-Kitale centre director Dr Charles Kariuki and former Tran Nzoia CEC in charge of agriculture Mary Nzomo at the GMO maize confined trial site in Kitale. Courtesy of The Star

Its Production compared to current production?

According to the results on drought tolerance and Insect pest resistance experiments carried out at the Confined Field Trials in Kiboko and Kitale, Genetically Modified Maize has a yield advantage compared to non GMO maize. The Genetically Modified Maize also proved to be resistant to Fall Army Worm.

Why all the hullabaloo from NGOs and other activists?

There has been a lot of debate in Parliament .The debates have been due to misunderstanding and lack of proper information on GMO. The conflict of interest from the multinational companies and the fear of change has also majorly contributed to these debates.

However, the Government of Kenya through various initiatives including BioAWARE, Biotechnology Sensitization workshops at county levels, schools’ biotechnology sensitization meetings. The Science Centre initiatives with schools, and other publics. Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), and other have contributed strongly in informing the public on importance of biotechnology and its applications.

Why is the Government unwilling to embrace the technology? (Political or Scientific reasons)

Kenya has all the Acts that guide biotechnology applications e.g. the Biosafety Act of 2009. Kenya too has the Biotechnology Policy Development of 1986. In addition the country has NBA, KEPHIS, KWS, KIPI, DVS, PCPB, KEBS, and others as competent authorities that will in all ways guide the agribiotechnology applications and deployment.

However, it is not known why there is a long delay in the use of crop GMO’s? There is a challenge that with a small groups of anti-GM activists who object to the technology on “moral” grounds. They typically claim that GM crops are unsafe – a view flatly rejected by the scientific community over the fast two decades.

Genetically Modified Maize market and consumption (effects if any to consumer or environment)

Genetically Modified Maize seed will be availed to the farmers through local seed companies at prevailing market prices (demand and supply) like any other commercially available improved seeds.

The use of Bt maize is not a silver-bullet solution to at our food insecurity challenges, but has potential to contribute towards reduced suffering of the food deficits especially due to maize. By deploying Genetically Modified Maize products, Kenya has the potential of solving food insecurity problems. KALRO has done a lot of work in sensitizing farmers, politicians and other stakeholders on the importance of GMO products in Kenya through testing Bt maize in confined field trials (CFTs) in Kiboko and Kitale. Bt maize materials in the CFTs have proven to be resistant to insects and drought as compared to the other conventional materials.

Kenya has a functional Biosafety Act of 2009 and a further environmental release regulation of 2011 which is the policy basis for GMO research. Kenya has all the Acts that guide biotechnology applications eg the Biosafety Act of 2009. Kenya too has the Biotechnology policy development of 1986. In addition the country has NBA, KEPHIS, KWS, KIPI, DVS, PCPB, KEGS, and others as competent authorities that will in all ways guide the agri-biotechnology applications and deployment.

This article first appeared in the July – September Edition of the Cereals Magazine