My country at long last will join the Gene Revolution: Farmers in Kenya are about to plant GM crops for the first time.
This is wonderful news for a nation whose laws until now have denied us access to the world?s best agricultural technologies??and the reversal means that we are finally embracing the solutions that promise to deliver both economic growth and food security to a struggling continent.
When the government announced the commercialization of Bt cotton on December 19, it was like an early Christmas present. For years, I have called for Kenya to take this important step. I have pleaded for it in column after column after column. (Read them all here.) I have spoken up at every opportunity, using my voice as a farmer to make the case for GM crops.
Like many Kenyan scientists/researchers and believers in scientific capabilities, I had also grown concerned. So many times, it seemed as though we were on the brink of success, only to turn back at the last moment and delay. The problem had nothing to do with science or safety, and everything to do with political willpower. Would we ever gather enough of it to do the right thing?
I worried that our time might never come.
But now it has. In the coming cropping season, Kenyan farmers will enjoy the ability to plant Bt cotton. It carries a natural ability to resist pests such as the armyworm and stalk borer. During the best years, these pests reduce yield. During the worst, they devastate entire harvests.
Biotechnology gives us a way to defend our crops from them.
Farmers around the world have used Bt cotton for a generation. Virtually all of the cotton grown in India, South Africa, and the United States takes advantage of this product of biotechnology. It has allowed farmers to grow more cotton on less land, using less herbicides, making producers more efficient, keeping consumer prices low, and relieving environmental stress. There are really no downsides.
Yet here in Kenya, we haven?t had the opportunity to try it out. Although our government has permitted research into GM crops, it had refused to allow their commercialization. The reasons for the refusal are complicated but essentially they have involved a toxic mix of ideology and ignorance.
Now science and common sense have prevailed. Over the next few years, up to 200,000 Kenyan farmers will choose to adopt Bt cotton. As they do, they will produce more cotton. Our country?s cotton mills will reopen, creating new jobs. President Uhuru Kenyatta and our country will come closer to meeting the goals of his Big Four Agenda.
All of Kenya will benefit.
So will much of Africa, which is full of countries that have resisted GM technology. There is an old saying: ?When Kenya catches a cold, East Africa sneezes.?? As long as Kenya refused to accept GMOs, many of our neighbors also resisted. But now Kenya has taken a cold remedy??and there?s a good chance that other African nations will follow.
In addition to reforms outside our borders, I?m hoping for more innovation inside of them.
Although I am a farmer and excited about the new opportunity to plant Bt cotton, I won?t grow any myself. That?s because I don?t live in one of Kenya?s cotton-producing regions. I grow maize and vegetables. I am happy for my fellow smallholders in the Coast, Eastern, Kerio Valley, Nyanza and Western regions of Kenya. It is their opportunity to resuscitate their ??dead? cotton fields.
Now that the government has taken this critical first step with Bt cotton, it should push forward with food crops, such as maize and cassava. They are staples of the Kenyan diet. We should use the power of biotechnology to improve our farming, boost our harvests, and deliver food security. Our scientists at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and other researchers have already completed field trials in several food crops. All that is left is the political decision to commercialize them.
It cannot come soon enough??and I am hopeful that once we make a good start with Bt cotton this year, farmers like me will gain access to Bt maize in 2021. I?ll grow it immediately.
Then I too will gain an important protection against pests. But we can?t stop there. Biotechnology can help us face so many other challenges, including those presented by weeds, disease, and drought.
That?s the promise of the Gene Revolution??and I?m delighted that Kenya finally has joined the side of the revolutionaries.
Note: This op-ed was previously published in the African Seed Trade Association magazine, Issue #6, March 2020.