Kenya plants demonstrations of insect-resistant GMO maize

By Verenardo Meeme

June 4, 2019

Kenyan scientists have planted demonstration plots in the country’s eastern and western regions to showcase the performance of genetically modified (GM) maize varieties in combating insect pests compared to their conventional counterparts.

Experts say the demonstrations, which feature TELA maize varieties bred with the  insect-resistant trait, will help create awareness and share information on the potential of GM technology. The maize fields will also allow policymakers and farmers to see for themselves how GM and conventional crop varieties perform under the same conditions.

Scientists hope the demonstrations will help demystify biotechnology and encourage lawmakers to lift Kenya’s GM crop ban, which prevents farmers from accessing the improved seeds.

Biotechnology has been proven and GM crops being grown by millions of farmers across the world, according to Dr. Stephen Mugo, regional representative for Africa and country representative for Kenya CIMMYT. “We would really like it to benefit the resource-poor farmers.”

The use of drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize can increase productivity by 10 percent, or 4.6 million bags, every season in all maize growing areas, said James Karanja, project investigator of Kenya’s TELA Maize Project.

Fertilizer is applied to the GM field trials.

The varieties were planted in Kenya’s country’s KALRO-Kitale and KALRO-Kiboko maize confined field trial locations. They are potential candidates for national performance trials (NPT), a process that’s already under way for pest-resistant GM cotton, Karanja said. The GM maize varieties were developed and tested under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, which bred both conventional and GM varieties, he explained.

In addition to drought-tolerance, the TELA maize also provides protection against insects through the addition of a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring, soil-borne bacteria used for insect control in organic farming. Though it primarily targets the stem borer pest, TELA maize has shown partial resistance to the devastating fall armyworm.

“Farmers who planted earlier this season in Bomet, in Kenyan’s Rift Valley, are uprooting the crop and planting afresh due to impacts of drought,” Karanja noted.

Farmers are also experiencing tremendous losses due to insect pests. A 2017 survey showed that Kenyan farmers lose 15 to 20 percent of their maize yields to stem borer alone, according to Karanja. The loss to fall armyworm is much higher, at 60 to 100 percent.

“If you combine the two, farmers almost get nothing,” Karanja said. “There is an urgent need to approve GMOs. As a scientist, we develop these technologies knowing that they will be used by our parents. There is no way we can do a shoddy job. We are here for the goodwill of the country.”

Scientists are always looking for ways to control pests without damaging the environment, Mugo explained. Pesticides are the most frequently used method, but they’re expensive for smallholder farmers and can cause health hazards when they find their way into the soil and water. Growing insect-resistant Bt crops greatly reduces the need for pesticides.

“The trial means a lot to us because it is our practical work, it is what we studied to help farmers and the agricultural value chain, as well as solve persistent agricultural challenges such as drought and pests,” said Maurice Omondi  a crop science student at the University of Nairobi. “Biotechnology is important to us because it gives us the impetus to get opportunities to do more trials for maize and other important crops for sustained agriculture.”

He stressed that GM crops are good for farmers because the technology will help them reduce the costs of controlling pests and persistent drought.

“I have been sponsored by the government to study crop science, a course whose research output cannot be used in my own country because of the ban on GMOs imports,” Omondi said. “It is ironical for the government to sponsor us to study biotechnology, yet it has banned GMO imports. If the ban on GMOs is lifted in the next two years, Kenya will be food independent.”

A Kenya national biosafety officer trains participants in the regulations governing GM field trials.

The TELA maize project is a public-private partnership that is working to commercialize drought-tolerant and insect-protected GM maize varieties to enhance food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Mugo said the crops will help resource-poor farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria.

The TELA research builds on the progress made from a decade of breeding work under the WEMA project, which released over 70 conventional hybrids that are already on the market.

This article has been revised to reflect that these are demonstration crops, not field trials, which were conducted previously.