The food crisis in Kenya worsens every day. Already struggling with climate change, farmers like me also have suffered from flooding and a devastating plague of locusts. Now the Covid-19 pandemic has added a new and unexpected challenge to our food security.
We must respond by embracing the world’s best agricultural technology. That’s why I’m so pleased that the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) has developed high-yielding, disease resistant cassava and has applied to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to approve this new disease-resistant GM cassava.
I don’t grow cassava myself, as it does not perform well in my part of the country. This crop is more well-suited to the more moderately hot and wet counties of western Kenya, the coast and the drier regions of the country, east of Mt. Kenya. The advent of GM cassava won’t affect my farm’s bottom line.
But it will help the farmers who grow cassava and the consumers who depend on it. By one estimate, half of Sub-Sahara Africa’s 1.03 billion people eat cassava. (In the United States and Latin America, it’s sometimes called “yuca.”) In the streets and towns of Kenya’s coastal areas, it’s often fried and sold as a cheap snack.
Cassava is Africa’s most important tropical root crop, providing an important source of dietary energy. The plants are rich in calories, offering plenty of carbohydrates and major vitamins. Its production eases pressure on other staples such as maize and wheat. Even better, it’s an outstanding reserve food that can remain in the ground for several seasons. If other crops fail, we can turn to the reliable cassava.
Yet cassava farmers have struggled. Many cultivate poor farmland. They plant low-yielding varieties. They suffer from pests such as the green mite as well as afflictions such as mosaic disease and brown streak. Some frustrated farmers have reduced their cassava acreage.
Technology offers a solution. Several rural development NGOs have been able to provide digital apps that help farmers who can use them to detect disease in time to protect and improve their yields.
An even better solution would be to prevent disease in the first place. That’s the promise of GM cassava, which could become Kenya’s second GM crop, following the commercialization of Bt cotton earlier this year. The Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) is now seeking public comments on the release of a GM cassava that resists brown streak.
Here’s my comment: We can’t have this safe and healthy crop soon enough.
After maize, cassava is Kenya’s most important crop. It feeds millions of people and provides both a food crop and an income for poor farmers. The better it performs on the farm, the better Kenyans do everywhere.
This is especially true right now, as the world confronts Covid-19. Kenya so far has escaped much of the harm of the pandemic: Through May, official statistics count less than 2,000 confirmed infections and just 64 deaths. These numbers probably miss a lot of cases. Whatever the reality, they surely will grow. They may even grow by a lot, especially as Kenya enters its rainy, cold season.
Yet it appears that the government has slowed the spread of the disease with travel restrictions, curfews, limits on hospital visits, school closings, and bans on large gatherings. Since the middle of March, I’ve obeyed a stay-at-home directive.
Farmers have continued to work, but the disease has made it harder to grow food and get it to market. The coastal counties of Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale, all important for cassava production, have undergone full lockdowns, including the stoppage of public transportation. This has made it harder to move labor into the fields and food to markets. The unfortunate result has been job losses, supply-chain disruption, and food shortages.
The locusts remain a severe problem, too. The current outbreak is the worst in a generation and swarms of these pests are eating our crops right now.
According to the IPC classification system, more than 25 million people in the Horn of Africa region, which includes Kenya, now face “acute food insecurity.”
GM cassava by itself is no panacea. But its ability to beat a bad disease means that it will help farmers grow the crops our country needs.
In the fight for food security in the face of locusts and a pandemic, we need every tool at our disposal-and one of the best is the technology of GM cassava.
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