This year, I’ve seen the devastation of the present—and I’ve also witnessed hope for the future.
Unfortunately, this is an election period and everyone seems to be more concerned with who will be elected to what position on August 8th.
Kenya faces an important choice for its farmers and its food security: Does our government want to continue to struggle with drought and pests, or does it want to embrace the science that can ease our plight and feed our people?
This March on my small farm near Eldoret in western Kenya, I planted six hectares of corn for livestock feed. Due to a prolonged drought, they failed to germinate and grow. So, in April I had to replant, suffering the added cost of more seeds as I planted them once more. Most of my neighbors also shared this sorry fate.
For small family farmers like us, this is a major expense—and the kind of frustration that makes us question why we ever went into agriculture.
The good news is that rain finally arrived. The bad news is that a different problem then emerged: an overwhelming infestation of the green vegetation-devouring fall armyworm, an invasive species that is one of the toughest pests to control. These bugs feasted on crops throughout my county of Uasin Gishu and two dozen other districts, including the counties of Bungoma, Kakamega, Nandi, and Trans Nzoia in Kenya’s traditional breadbasket region.
A recent report attributed to the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Dr. Tuimur indicate that out of 1.92 million hectares of maize planted by Kenyan farmers this year, more than 800,000 are under threat, while 200,000 hectares are affected.
Farmers always face challenges, especially from weather and pests. So perhaps this is our lot and we shouldn’t complain.
But this is not what I believe—at least not in the age of biotechnology, when a proven science can provide relief through an improved understanding of seed genetics.
Unfortunately, Kenya has not yet adopted GM crops. We’ve seen these plants revolutionize farming in North and South America and even in the sub-Saharan countries of Burkina Faso and South Africa. In these places, farmers have enjoyed record yields, thanks in large measure to biotechnology.
A recent report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) reports that in 2016, farmers around the world planted more GM crops than ever before. The vast majority of them were smallholder farmers in the developing world—the very kind who dominate Kenyan agriculture.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, we watch and suffer.
The tragedy is that we know what we need to do, which is to commercialize the GM crops that Kenyan researchers have developed and tested in recent years. On May 11, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) began a second year of confined field trials to examine a variety of corn that naturally repulses the fall armyworm.
I attended the groundbreaking ceremony in Kitale and was impressed to see the meticulous planning behind the field trials. Researchers planted GM maize and non-GM maize side-by-side and also took steps to prevent pollen from drifting onto other farms.
This is an important milestone, but also a reminder that we’ve moved too slowly. If this GM technology had been available to Kenyan farmers this year, we would not have had to suffer the losses we already have and would have been saved from the crippling effects of the fall army worm —and we’d be in a much better position to feed our families and country today.
Instead, facing an acute shortage of food, the Kenyan government has imported hundreds of tons of maize from South Africa and Mexico, also yellow maize from Russia and Ukraine, knowing these countries grow Bt maize. In essence, paying foreign farmers for what Kenyan farmers ought to be able to harvest, if given access to the proper tools. Moreover, we’ve had to redirect our nation’s development funds to agriculture, helping farmers buy additional pesticides. This is the only way our government lets us defend our crops from the ravages of the armyworm.
GM crops won’t solve all of our problems, but they mark a clear path forward as we strive to achieve the “triple bottom line” of economic returns for farmers, environmental sustainability through a reduction in chemical sprays, and food security for Kenyans everywhere.
This season, we’ve suffered through the problems and paid the price. We’ve also seen the potential of a safe solution. Now, for the sake of Kenya, we must embrace modern science and move forward into the future. The Government must allow the commercialization stage of GM maize by KALRO.
This piece first appeared June 26 in Daily Nation (Nairobi, Kenya).