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May 31, 2008

Biotechnology makes gains in Kenya despite controversy

Beatrice Gakii’s face glows when she talks about the biotechnology-spiced farming venture that has enabled her and village colleagues to double their income in a year. The elderly retired teacher is looked upon to provide leadership to 217 members of a banana growing women group in Kenya's Chuka District.

They have grown bananas for years, but early last year scientists approached her to ditch the varieties they grew and adopt improved ones.

While conventional technologies like crop propagation have been used by local scientists for many years to develop new varieties of similar crops, but with different characteristics, genetic modification (GM) technology is at the centre of a raging debate. GM is a process by which the genetics of crops is altered to make them pest resistant, get higher harvest or grow faster.

Fearing the new technology, tissue culture, some farmers declined the offer, but Mrs Gakii decided to grow just 10 stems. Other farmers were equally interested, and following consistence in extension services and the flowering of the bananas, they embraced the new variety known as tissue culture banana.

The variety is developed through a technology where new plant species is regenerated from a single shoot tip of a similar plant without altering its genetics. For instance, a banana shoot is dissected into tiny pieces and placed in a disinfected container and fed with various hormones to enhance growth. “We have Sh480,000 ($7700) in our account today and every woman now wants to join us. This farming is changing our lives,” said Mrs Gakii.

The exponential growth in yield and income for the small holder farmers in Chuka is at the heart of debate on whether emerging agriculture technologies will be the saviour of Africa’s food needs, especially now that the world is facing food crisis.

Opinion is divided with some scientists in Kenya saying that the country will have to adopt GM technology in future. Others say the country should adopt GM technology for non-food crops like cotton, while still others reject the technology out rightly.

Tissue culture falls under biotechnology, but according to Margaret Karembu, the director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA), the technology is a step that countries must take to before they start growing GM crops.

Currently, Kenya does not allow GM food into the country, nor does it allow GM food to be grown. But according to James Nyoro, the director of Tegemeo Institute which is involved in agriculture research, Kenya is awash with GM processed food imported from South America and Europe.

But importation of GM seeds is prohibited because it is likely to impact on the pattern of pollination among the non-GM crops. “Kenya should, for instance, adopt growing GM cotton.

It can make major changes in the living standards of our farmers,” Prof Nyoro said in an interview. He said that before Kenya adopts GM farming for food crops, there is a need to exhaust all conventional technologies that exist in the country and which are yet to be adopted by farmers.

Without the use of GM technology, Kenya’s farm yield is 20 per cent of the yield in South Africa or South America.

“There is room for growth even before we adopt GM technology. Traditional technology is lying on the shelves of researchers without benefiting farmers,” said Prof Nyoro.

Kenya has about 60 varieties of hybrid maize seeds, developed over time through conventional technology by scientists based at Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari).

But weak seed commercialisation systems have meant that less than 10 hybrid seed varieties have been adopted by farmers, leaving out tens of others with potential for higher yield.

Lilian Njeri, a maize breeder at Kari, says Kenya may at one time have to adopt GM crops although potential for improving yield using traditional technologies still exist. She said the pressure to develop seed varieties that are disease resistant is rising with the emergence of climate change.

In Kiambu district’s Muguga area, for instance, in addition to potatoes, people used to grow maize varieties known as Hybrid 6 Series which were developed for high altitude, high rainfall fed areas. “But now, farmers are coming to us asking for high altitude low rainfall fed varieties. The weather patterns have changed and are still changing,” said Ms Njeri.

So, the situation is such that farmers in Muguga have opted for a maize breed known as Hybrid 5 Series, which was originally developed for the drier lower Eastern province.

Wanjiru Kamau of the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) sees the GM debate as a marketing gimmick by the world’s big seed and crop chemical companies, which control the GM seeds market and also manufacture herbicides.

GM crops are not affected by herbicides and their use would increase the usage of chemicals that kill weeds, instead of the tedious ploughing and cultivation.

Ms Kamau cited the case of Zambia, which in 2004 rejected GM maize food aid from the United States. “Today, Zambia is producing enough maize to feed itself and for export without using GM technology. Africa should instead follow this example,” she said.

Legal shortcomings abound of the use of GM in Kenya although in late 2006, the government approved the National Biotechnology Development Policy that defines how biotechnology is handled in research, development, and application.

The policy recognises the role that biotechnology can play in poverty reduction, enhancing food security and conservation of the environment and biodiversity, but takes a strong line on the ethical, environmental and safety concerns of biotechnology.

Later this year, Parliament is expected to pass the Biosafety Bill which will regulate how modified organisms are used and further establish the National Biosafety Authority. This is likely to open doors for GM adoption.

However, the Bill has come under heavy criticism from a section of civil societies and small scale farmers, who say the human and environmental effects of GM foods have not been fully researched and therefore the technology should be kept away from the country.

GM was first adopted 12 years ago and to date is in use in 23 countries by 55 million farmers. In Africa, only South Africa has adopted the technology. The total area under GM crop in the world is 114.2 million hectares, twice the size of Kenya.

Clive James, the president of ISAAA, the group that is creating biotechnology awareness in Kenya, said that while GM holds promise to helping the country feed itself, it is not the proverbial magic bullet. He, however, said it would be a mistake if Kenya failed to see the positive side of GM.

“Kenya should be asking itself what is the risk of not using GM technology rather than what is the risk of using the technology,” said Mr James.

“We cannot, however, put all the eggs in one basket when we talk about feeding people. It’s about using the old and the new technology to achieve food security,” he added.

Among the concerns of anti-GM adoption are that no adequate research has been done over the last 12 years to ascertain the human and environmental effects of GM. But GM supporters ay research done so far has not indicated negative effects of GM food on people and animals.

GM crops cannot be grown near conventional crops because cross pollination can occur and foreign genes introduced to conventionally grown crops, genome structure.

One of the major challenge Kenya faces if it adopts GM is the cost of setting up laboratories and the associated infrastructure and awareness of the GM.

But scientists say governments like Kenya could partner with others, such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa, rather than depend on technology owned by companies like Monsanto which is expensive.

“Ultimately, private/public partnerships are the ideal way by which countries in African can be able to own GM technology,” said Mr James. Already, Ghana has partnered with Brazil to help the West African country lay the infrastructure of GM crops.

Business Daily Africa

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