Will ag biotech be Kenyatta’s legacy for Kenya?

By Rose Mukonyo

December 5, 2019

Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is serving his second and last term, according to the Constitution, is bent on leaving a memorable popular legacy.

He intends to achieve this by keeping his promises as formulated in the Big Four Agenda action plan: raising the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from 9.2 percent to 20 percent by 2022 through enhanced manufacturing; ensuring 100 percent food security and nutrition; providing universal health care coverage; and creating 500,000 new affordable homes.

The most challenging of these may be ensuring food security and improved nutrition. More than 10 million Kenyans still suffer from chronic food insecurity, and a quarter of all children under 5 years are malnourished, as one in every five families is unable to meet the minimum food requirement. In the last two decades, food shortages have caused four national disasters that plunged the nation into more hunger and poverty.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that the Kenyan population will double to 94 million by the year 2050, which underscores the urgent need to significantly increase food production if the country is to be food secure. Ways of achieving this goal include irrigating arid and semi-arid areas, using tissue culture to improve the quality and quantity of planting materials and possibly growing genetically engineered (GE) crops.

As I see it, the best legacy our president could leave for Kenyans is to lead the adoption of GE crops. Allowing farmers to grow GE maize, cassava, sorghum and sweet potatoes could help him realize his desire to achieve food security, while approving pest-resistant GE cotton could boost manufacturing through the resurrection of the clothing and textile industries.

News Analysis

Kenya has not adopted GE crops primarily due to concerns about food safety, environmental impacts and religious ethics. However, in 2000 it was the first country to sign the Cartagena Protocol — an international agreement that guides each country in how to address any possible negative impacts of biotechnology on society and the environment and increase public confidence in the technology.

The ministry of health banned the imports of GMO products in 2012 after a study by French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini claimed GE maize caused tumors in rats. Though three subsequent studies discredited his claim, the ministry has not ended its ban. Instead, it recently presented a statement to the Senate saying that GE crops would be allowed on a case by case basis, given that certain conditions were met.

Scientists in Kenya welcomed the move and have expressed optimism that Bt cotton, which is now in the final stage of National Performance Trials (NPT), will be the first crop to be commercialized.  Bt maize has completed confined field trials, but the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) has not granted permission for NPTs.

Maize is a main staple food for the larger Kenyan population, which consumes 98 to 125 kilograms per person per year. That translates to approximately 59 percent of the carbohydrate consumption for poor households and 36 percent for rich families.

In addition, maize demand outstrips supply, requiring importation from neighboring countries as well as overseas. Bt maize is expected to increase yields, based on its performance in the United States, which produces 9.93 metric tonnes per hectare, compared to 1.50 metric tonnes per hectare in Kenya.

Kenyan maize farmers also are encountering massive losses as erratic rains and insect pests, primarily the stalk borer and fall armyworm, have destroyed their investment. The fall armyworm is flourishing in Africa’s tropical climate, with farmers in Kenya’s eastern and western regions experiencing another invasion of the pest. This has pushed them to try crude methods as crop sprays, such as mixing pepper powder and Ariel soap (washing powder),  since the pesticides available in Kenyan markets are not helping much.

Field trials have shown that GE crops, such as Bt maize, can help farmers control the fall armyworm, as well as mitigate the effects of climate change.

President Kenyatta does seem to understand the value of Bt cotton in reviving the clothing and textile industries that have been a key economic pillar in the country. During last year’s Mashujaa day celebrations (2018), he made a direct order to the ministers of agriculture, health, industries and trade to come up with a quick mechanism for reviving cotton production, including the possibility of adopting Bt cotton.

Currently, only five out of 22 ginneries are operational in Kenya, producing an average of 25,000 bales against an annual demand of 200,000 bales. The deficit is covered through imports, which would not be the case if Kenya was already growing Bt cotton.

Should Bt cotton be commercialized, hopefully by 2020, farmers will benefit by getting improved yields, reducing their use of pesticides and cutting their production costs — all of which will translate to economic development.

If Kenyans are well-fed and have been empowered economically, then health care will be affordable to all and they will be in a position to buy new homes. Therefore, by lifting the ban on GMO crops in Kenya, President Kenyatta will be solving a key piece of the puzzle in achieving his Big Four Agenda and will be ensured of leaving a legacy noted in the history books.

Image: CIAT/Neil Palmer