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February 26, 2012

Hard to interpret projected yield increases as GM maize seed gets closer to market in Kenya

In 2011 Kenya caused a storm in some circles by for the first time making legal the importation of gene-modified maize seed for consumption. This was arguably a step that could have been predicted years before, given the several (known) trials of various GM crops that have been taking place there for years.

In the new environment of a major anti-GM crops barrier having been breached, some of those trials are close to a stage where their products will soon be on the market.

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute is one of the organizations that have been undertaking testing of GM crops, with the first GM maize seeds expected to be available to farmers by 2014.

Kenya’s The Nation newspaper reported KARI official Simion Gichuki as saying the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project was expected to increase yields from the current less than one tonne per hectare to as much as five tonnes per hectare.

Unfortunately, in almost all stories citing yield figures like this, it is not mentioned whether these projected increases are to be solely from the farmers switching from their present seeds to the fancy new seeds, or whether these figures also assume all other production conditions being ideal.

Obviously the test field conditions of KARI will be vastly different from the real world cultivation realities of most small scale Kenyan maize farmers. When all other conditions (planting date, water, soil fertility, fertilizer, pesticides, etc) are optimized as under field test conditions like presumably exist at KARI, a four of five yield might be realizable; even more. But if the only change a farmer makes in his cultivation conditions is to switch seeds, s/he is obviously not going to achieve the same yields as seen on the KARI maize test fields!

For claims of four or five fold yield increases to make sense, it is necessary to know if the test conditions used to cite them are those of a ‘typical’ Kenyan maize farmer, or whether they are idealized test conditions.

Apart from adopting a new variety of seed, if all the other real-world conditions of a farmer remain the same (erratic and declining rain, poor soil and no supplementation/fertilizer/pesticides, etc), are four to five-fold yield increases still to be expected?

Any improvement of yields would be welcome, even if it is not the four or five-fold, but one suspects that some of the figures given without context and explanation provided are a case of over-selling a product.

One also can’t help but get the impression that the claims of ‘testing’ these GM seeds are more a public relations exercise than a scientific enterprise. The political/regulatory decision to market them has already been made. The hoped-for yield increases are apparently already known.

So when Dr. Gethi says, “But the genetically modified maize will first be subjected to trials,” it seems to imply that there is still a possibility of them not being adopted if the results of those 'trials' warranted it.

But everything else that is said makes it clear that whatever is still being ‘trialed’ is certainly not going to have any impact on their coming to market. Clearly all that is being conducted in the ‘trials’ are a few small mopping up operations.

It is also said the government plant approval body will also evaluate the seeds for their ‘suitability.’ What are the chances of that body finding the seeds ‘unsuitable?’

What does it matter now, one may ask? In the Kenyan scenario, where the once difficult hurdle of government and/or public acceptability of GM crops seems to have been overcome, it probably doesn’t matter much. But it is this kind of sly ambiguity in giving figures and stating facts that makes many opponents of GM technology suspect that the ‘trials’ are actually no more than a marketing ‘conspiracy’ on behalf of American and a few European seed companies, rather than a great new innovation to turn poor farmers’ fortunes around.

Education assistant minister Ayiecho Olweny said, “Let us not pay a lot of attention to the activists; they will distract us from achieving food sustainability through such a modern technology.”

GM seeds have come to Kenya and there is clearly no going back, whatever the ‘trials’ may or may not show. As the biggest economy in the region, Kenya’s decision will have far-reaching effects on neighboring countries.

South Africa, the continent’s biggest producer of GM crops, is surrounded by several countries that are still reticent about accepting GM technology. But much of their resistance has been effectively neutralized by their large-scale importation of South African processed foods which contain GM ingredients.

If GM cultivation is a competitive advantage, those of South Africa’s neighbors that maintain bans on the cultivation of biotech crops find themselves in an awkward position. That is that they prohibit the growing of crops which their citizens are already eating anyway. Furthermore, those countries’ farmers and agri-processors find themselves unable to compete against the multiple advantages their South African counterparts enjoy over them, to which can be added the higher (though disputed by some) yields of GM technology.

Part of the result has been that it is already struggling farmers and processors in South Africa’s neighboring countries who are now putting pressure on their governments to ‘equalize’ the playing field by allowing them to also grow GM crops.

Given Kenya’s position as the dominant economy in eastern Africa, it is very likely that its embrace of GM technology will have a similar effect on its neighbors.

African Agriculture

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