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April 15, 2009

Kenya begins field trials of gene-modified maize

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) has adopted Bt maize which is more resistant to crop pest e.g. stem borer.

According to their scientist, Dr. Joel Mutisya, KARI hopes the variety will be resistant and boost maize productivity; the trials would test the resilience of the breed. Stem Borer larva is blamed for the east African country dependence on maize imports, hitting the incomes of farmers and reducing food security.

"KARI is pleased to announce the planting of these trials after years of laboratory research, as part of approach to help Kenyan farmers fight Stem Borers," He said during an interview. He asserts that the produce from the experiment would be safe to eat.

"It is safe for consumption, but until tests are done and certification done by the government, it will not be released to the general public," he added

The Stem Borer is the caterpillar of an indigenous African moth that bores into grasses with thick stems, and maize is one of its preferred hosts.

It is estimated that 400,000 tonnes of maize is lost to pests, especially stem borers like the Maize Stock Borer. This is close to the total amount of maize imported by Kenya annually. This loss directly affects the livelihoods of thousands of families who rely on maize as a staple food and as a source of income.

Dr. Mutisya states, "The maize would also be crossed with Kenyan varieties to boost its hardiness and adaptation to Kenyan growing conditions." This is the first time the insect-resistant maize has been planted directly into the soil in an open field in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa. The experimental fields are not accessible by people, domestic animals or wildlife.

Maize plants expressing Bt are associated with many non target weed species with ecosystem functions vital to maize production in Kenya. A selection process is developed that highlights which species are the highest priorities for looking at possible impacts - pollinators, predators, possible pests, weeds or soil functions.

Resistance developed in the four stem borer species (Chilo partellus, Chilo orichalcociliellus, Sesamia calamistis and Busseola fusca) in Kenya will be a real risk without appropriate management strategies. These are the main targets for Bt maize, although other pests such as Helicoverpa armigera should also be considered. Large-scale farmers can plant refuges of non-Bt maize, but for the smallholder maize production, typical of Kenya, other solutions are needed.

Biotech Kenya

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