As Africa falls behind the rest of the world on agricultural technology, Kenya is falling behind the rest of Africa, warned a group of scientists in Nairobi this summer.
“Other East African countries are proceeding at full speed to commercialize a number of [genetically modified] crops while Kenya’s progress has stalled,” said Margaret Karembu, an environmental management specialist who earned her Ph.D. from Kenyatta University.
This is very disappointing, because now more than ever Kenyan farmers like me must take advantage of the latest technologies.
I learned this firsthand in April on a visit to South Africa, sponsored by AfricaBio and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. We studied five small farms near Johannesburg and Pretoria—and came away impressed by the achievements of our fellow Africans, when they enjoy access to modern technology.
One farmer in Limpopo Province showed us his fields and boasted about how GM crops have made them more productive. When he started farming in 1999, he would harvest 1.5 tons of maize and half a ton of cotton per hectare. Today, with access to varieties that resist weeds and pests, he has seen his yields improve fourfold and fivefold, respectively. He expects each hectare of maize to grow six tons and each hectare of cotton to grow 2.5 tons!
These are substantial benefits, but they’re only part of his success story. GM crops have relieved him of the hard task of ploughing his fields each year—a huge savings in time and labour. What’s more, he has cut his dependence on herbicides and pesticides, lowering his applications from six times per year to just two.
This saves money, improves environmental stewardship, and makes farming safer. It’s important to remember that although herbicides and pesticides decompose before they reach consumers, the farmers who spray crops directly must protect themselves from overexposure. Reducing the number of times they spray is one of the best ways of limiting their risk and keeping them healthy.
At another farm, we saw how GM crops can work hand-in-hand with mechanization, improving productivity. Perhaps most surprising, it has made the business of farming more attractive to young people. All over the world, farmers worry about the next generation, which so often seems to avoid agriculture. On the GM farms of South Africa, I witnessed people in their 30’s devoting their careers to food production. They may flee farming when it involves the primitive ways of their grandparents, but they seem attracted to a sector that has embraced cutting-edge technologies.
I had visited South Africa twice before, but both trips were in the 1990s—long before the gene revolution took hold anywhere. I was struck by how much had changed. Back then, South African agriculture and Kenyan agriculture were roughly comparable. Today, however, the South Africans are much more advanced than my countrymen.
I applaud their progress. I also envy it.
Our lawmakers and policy leaders must understand that to improve Kenya’s food security, we must embrace these new ideas. The simple step of allowing us to plant GM maize, cotton and cassava—technologies that are readily available but currently kept beyond our reach—immediately would improve our productivity and help us feed our own people, feed our textile mills and put money in the pockets of farmers.
Not only would we achieve food security, we’d also see a revival of Kenya’s moribund cotton sector. Our dead cotton ginneries and textiles mills would spring back to life, fueled by newly productive cotton fields within our borders. With GM cotton, we’d grow our own supply rather than depend on imports.
This would create a lot of jobs for a lot of people.
Our main obstacle is ignorance. People have a tendency to fear what they don’t understand and cannot visualize. If more Kenyans had the opportunity to see what GM crops have done for South Africa, our country would rush to commercialize these technologies rather than continue to find excuses to keep them away from farmers.
It’s time for us to stop falling behind everybody else. We must catch up to South Africa, and then our whole continent must catch up to the rest of the world. Every journey begins with a small step—and the one we must take now involves the complete acceptance of a safe technology.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows corn (maize), vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org
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This column first appeared in the Daily Nation (Nairobi, Kenya).