Farmers hopeful new maize variety will be approved to avert food insecurity
Out in the countryside, farmers like Grace Sua are going on with their lives as usual.
Spotted shielding herself from the scorching sun under the drought resistant Mututi tree in a village in Mutomo, Kitui County, Sua says: “So far, we have not lost a loved one and thank God, but if the drought and food security situation deteriorates, we may soon be thrown into mourning.”
Survival has not been easy forcing innovation to come to enable one make it through the tough times.
“I exchanged my two cows for maize seeds which I planted when rains pounded the area towards the end of last year. Now I don’t know what to do if the current drought ravaging the area persists,” Sua explains.
The mother of six, having lost the same number in mysterious circumstances at the height of previous droughts, pointed to her empty granary.
Wilting maize stalks characterized the two acre almost bear piece of land which she had hoped would produce a bumper harvest. Unfortunately her crop was destroyed by pests triggered by the drought spell.
“Women are usually the hardest hit by food shortages yet they spend more time cultivating crops and tilling dry land,” observes Cecilia Kibe, a development and community mobiliser.
The impact of climate change in Kenya has led to food insecurity over the last five years with a serious impact in 2009 when the drought was declared a national disaster.
“Maize production has declined despite introduction of new technologies due to pests and drought,” notes Martha Gitau.
However, with introduction of new technologies there is need to acquire additional farm inputs translating to greater cash investment for any increase in production to be realised.
Ironically most of the farmers in the semi-arid areas cannot afford extra farm inputs due to poverty.
As drought bites, many children in Mutomo have dropped out of school due to hunger.
In order to survive, villagers have one meal per day so that the relief food, which the local people frequently rely on, can be consumed for a longer period.
During the famine period, the community has only two days to engage in productive activities in a week, causing locals to depend on relief food locally known as mwolyo.
Maize production has remained low, averaging 1.8 tonnes per hectare and according to Kenya Bureau of Statistics in 2013, a total of 38.9 million bags of maize was produced, a deficit of 2.0 percent compared to 39.7 million bags in 2012.
Low production, says experts, is as a result of factors such as erratic climatic conditions; use of unimproved maize varieties; low use of improved technologies and high incidence of diseases like maize lethal necrosis.
During drought, maize is especially susceptible to pests and farmers can experience complete loss, a situation biotechnology experts say can change by availing to farmers drought-tolerant and insect-pest-protected maize seeds.
“Aflotoxin is caused by pests like the stem borer. It is harmful to human beings and causes massive damage to the grain,” explains Dr Eliud Kireger, Director General of Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation (KALRO).
However, there is hope for farmers like Sua and thousands of other women engaged in farming in the next two years when a new maize variety is expected in the market.
Kenya’s top researchers in the science of biotechnology who have requested the National Bio-safety Authority (NBA) to approve an application to allow commercialisation of Bt maize. They note that the grain will cushion against hunger and malnutrition.
“The variety will improve the nutritional status of women and their family members. There will be enough to eat. Extra grains can be sold to boost family incomes,” says Dr Denis Kyetere, Executive Director of Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). He notes: “Kenya will become the second country in the continent, after South Africa, to have the maize variety commercialised.”
According to Kyetere, the insect pest protected Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) maize variety known as Bt maize will help farmers increase their yield by reducing damage caused by stem borer insects.
“Farmers can improve yields while reducing the use of insecticide sprays and at the same time benefit the environment,” explains Kyetere of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project.
The project is a private–public partisanship coordinated by AATF and KALRO, which took part in developing the grain to be licensed to local seed companies royalty-free by through AATF.
GMO experts claim that Kenya stands to save over seven billion shillings per year in foreign exchange lost through importation of maize if the regulator allows the first ever GMO maize variety to be commercialized even as the ban imposed on importation of the products remains in force.
The savings will be accrued because the country will no longer be compelled to import 400,000 metric tonnes of maize worth the amount annually to make the country self-sufficient on the grain.
According to the agricultural sector development strategy, Kenyans depend on maize as their staple food and are often threatened by hunger due to a number of constraints like insect pests and drought.
Stem borers are known to reduce maize yields by an average of 13 percent or 400,000 metric tons, which is equivalent to the yearly amount of maize imported that amounts to KSh7.2 billion.
However, this may be met with challenges because GMOs are not legally accepted in the country. Six months after Deputy President William Ruto issued a directive that the controversial ban on GMOs would be lifted, nothing has happened.
Ruto made the announcement in August 2015 during a scientific conference saying the ban would be lifted in two months’ time, but more than six months later no one is talking.
As Ruto issued the directive, some local scientists said they were ready to make the country the second state in Africa to have a new maize variety commercialised.
Despite the ban slapped on importation of GMOs over three years ago, some scientists remain upbeat that the National Biosafety Authority will allow the controversial variety to be commercialized.
The ban was imposed by the State after one French scientist, Prof Gilles-Eric Serallini claimed in a study that GMO foods cause cancer.
Researchers, Dr Stephen Mugo and Dr Francis Nangayo, said the application submitted to National Biosafety Authority need not influence approval to go commercial.
“I rest my case because the author of the study did retract the study. It is not going to have any influence on the application to have the decision to commercialise the request,” says Nang’ayo.
His views were supported by Kireger who noted: “We are hopeful the application will be approved. The ban does not stop research to continue. It’s our hope the process will be approved by the time the ban is lifted we will have the maize commercialized by 2017.”