Daily Nation (Kenya) via AgBioView
By Isaiah Esipisu
June 3 2009
www.nation.co.ke

Kenya is set to join several countries like India, South Africa, Burkina Faso and China in growing and commercialising genetically modified cotton following the recent enactment of biosafety legislation. Contained field trials of the Bt cotton have been going on under the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) since 2004 and are now nearing completion.

Bt means Bacillus Thuringiensis, a scientific name for a naturally occurring soil bacterium that produces a protein used in crop protection through biotechnology. "It became necessary to introduce Bt cotton to revive production in Kenya, which had declined from an all time high of 70,000 bales in 1985 to just about 20,000 bales currently," says Dr Charles Waturu, Kari Thika Center director, and Bt cotton lead researcher.

The significant production decline has been attributed to various factors, including poor quality seeds, delayed payments to farmers and high cost of production due to pest problems. Many Kenyan farmers abandoned cotton growing mainly due to uncontrollable invasion of pests.

Production
Introduction of the insect resistant cotton variety is therefore part of the government strategy to revive the sector as it would reduce the cost of production. Currently, Waturu says, over 30 per cent of the total cotton production costs goes to pest control, especially bollworm.

This figure is likely to fall significantly with the introduction of Bt cotton. He says other advantages of growing Bt cotton include higher yields leading to better incomes for farmers, less labour input requirements, low exposure to dangerous chemicals thus better health for farmers and the environment.

However, commercialisation of Bt cotton in Kenya is facing stiff opposition from people opposed to modern biotechnology in general. They claim that planting of the insect resistant cotton by Indian farmers had led many of them to commit suicide. But a scientific study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) titled: Bt cotton and farmer suicides in india: reviewing the evidence, found no evidence linking Bt cotton farming to suicide.

On the contrary, the research revealed that adoption of Bt cotton variety had tremendously improved cotton production from 263 kg per hectares to 582 kg per hectares in India. After thorough analysis of available evidence the IFPRI researchers: Guillaume Gruere, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, and Debdatta Segunpta concluded that "Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for occurrence of farmer suicides."

Overall
One of the authors of the peer-reviewed report Mehta-Bhatt, who is currently with the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, says Bt cotton has played a key role in improving India’s overall cotton production. India is currently the world’s leading producer of Bt cotton.

Over 60 million people depend on the industry. Last year, five million Indian smallholder farmers planted 7.6 million hectares of Bt cotton, according to the Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM crops: 2008 report.

Mehta-Bhatt, who is from India and has worked closely with small-scale farmers there, says Indian farmers who are growing certified transgenic cotton are much better off than those who grow conventional varieties.

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