When Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta visited the city of Eldoret in June, he gave those of us who live here a great sense of hope about the future of farming, science, and technology.
Two months later, however, we’re still waiting on his government’s ministers to make good on his promise to remove Kenya’s harmful ban on GMOs.
The president traveled here on June 21 to commission the Rift Valley Textile (cotton) Mill (Rivatex) that he said would create thousands of textile jobs, improve the economic prospects of cotton farmers, and help him meet the goals of his “Big 4 Agenda.”
He also made a major announcement: He publicly directed the ministers of Agriculture, Industry, Environment, Health, and Education to “fast track” the commercialization of GMO cotton and rescind the 2012 ban on GM imports.
This was just what I wanted to hear. My farm is right outside Eldoret, within the breadbasket of the country. Although I don’t grow cotton—my main agricultural enterprises are maize, dairy and vegetables—I immediately understood the huge significance of this directive. It meant that Kenya finally would repeal a ban that has hurt our farmers and prevented Kenya from achieving food security; that Bt cotton and maize would immediately be commercialized.
Essentially President Kenyatta said by joining the nations that have embraced biotechnology, we could at long last enter the 21st century.
The problem is that in the two months since his visit, we’ve made no progress beyond our 20th-century methods. We’re no closer to the commercialization of GMO cotton than we were at the start of the year! The ministers appear to have done nothing.
I’ve been calling for Kenya to accept GMOs for a decade. I’ve personally observed how this safe and proven technology has helped farmers around the world, from the United States to South Africa; from Canada to India. By reducing the threats posed by pests and weeds, it has allowed farmers to produce record-setting harvests.
Access to GMOs is crucial for a developing country like Kenya, where millions of people – more than 80 % of the Kenyan population – depend on farming for their livelihoods and malnutrition is a constant menace. We must find creative and durable ways to increase the income of our farmers and improve the food security of everybody. GMOs won’t accomplish this by themselves, but they’re an important part of the formula—and we’ve scorned them for far too long.
In his address at the commissioning of the cotton mill in Eldoret, President Kenyatta talked about the demand for GMO cotton. If the refurbished mill is to run at full capacity and full employment, it will need a reliable supply of cotton. To achieve this, farmers will require access to GMOs that neutralize the attacks of bollworms, increasing cotton production in 22 counties ten-fold – from the current 28,000 tones to 260,000 tons per year. This cotton will feed not only the new mill, but also half a dozen other mills that have shut down in recent years. GMO technology has the potential to help them roar back to life.
Wherever cotton farmers have gained access to GMOs, they’ve rushed to take advantage of them. In India, for example, an estimated 97 percent of cotton farmers plant GMO varieties. Nobody forced this on them. They chose it voluntarily because they saw the benefits.
Maize is the next obvious opportunity for GMO adoption. As a grower of maize myself, I’m keenly aware of how GMOs can improve my productivity and profitability. This tool would help me kill the insects that gnaw on my crops without the complication of pesticides. And all I’m seeking is access to the same technology that farmers in many other countries now take for granted.
We Kenyans can complain all we want about legacies of colonialism and racism and how the world neglects Africa; even about corruption — but in the case of GMOs, the sad fact is that we have denied ourselves this opportunity. We have nobody else to blame.
We can and must reverse course. We’ve seen what GMOs can do for farmers and consumers elsewhere. Let’s let this miracle of technology improve our own lives.
President Kenyatta understands the opportunity. Two months ago in Eldoret, he gave voice to it. Now it’s up to his ministers to push for the successful commercialization of GMOs, so that Kenya’s farmers can grow them as soon as 2020.
The time for words is over—and the moment for action is here.