23 February 2012

Kenya: Genetic Maize Seeds Set for Market

Genetically modified maize varieties will be available in Kenyan shops in the next two years.

Scientists were conducting field trials on the drought-resistant maize seeds before they could be released to the local market, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute officer in charge of biotechnology Simion Gichuki said on Thursday.

If all goes as planned, farmers will be able to access the seeds by 2014.

Dr Gichuki said the trials were confined in Kari's Kiboko research station in Eastern region. "We anticipate we will be able to get the maize seeds out as planned," he said.

The research at Kiboko, under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project, seeks to develop genetically modified maize to help improve the current yield.

Speaking on Thursday at the launch of the 2011Global Status of Commercialised Biotecg/GM Crops at Nairobi Safari Club, WEMA Kenya country coordinator James Gethi, said the project was incorporating drought tolerant maize varieties.

"We are developing new drought-tolerant maize varieties from existing high-yielding and locally adapted genetic resources," said Dr Gethi.

Kenya, which is seeking to fill a shortage of four million bags to feed the nation, recently allowed GM imports.

One in every 10 Kenyans faces starvation, but some politicians doubt the safety of the GM imports.

Dr Gethi said once put into commercial production, the genetically modified drought tolerant maize was anticipated to improve the farmers' produce per hectare from less than one tonne to up to five.

"But the genetically modified maize will first will be subjected to trials."

Such trials by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services will help ascertain the suitability of the seeds. The piloting of the seeds will be done before the seeds are released to the market.

If the project succeeds, it will help the country improve its maize production and end perennial maize shortage whose margin of shortage keeps increasing.

According to Tegemeo Institute of Agriculture Policy and Development, Egerton University, Kenya produced 23 million bags in the 2009/2010 financial year against the country's consumption of 37 million bags of maize, meaning there was a deficit of nearly a half.

Education assistant minister Ayiecho Olweny told the function that Kenya should move fast to adopt GM crops.

"Let us not pay a lot of attention to the activists; they will distract us from achieving food sustainability through such a modern technology," he said adding that other countries had adopted it and had longer life expectancies than Kenyans.

Dr Charles Kariuki, the Kari director in Machakos, said the country needed to embrace biotechnology as it offered the opportunity to overcome the agricultural production constraints.

Develop new varieties

"Using biotechnology, scientists can develop new varieties of crops that can take a short time to mature," he said. The plants are also more resistant to challenges, including drought.

International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications Africentre director Margaret Karembu said drought- tolerant maize was welcome as a way forward in ensuring food security.

"Adoption of biotechnology to improve food production is no longer an option," said Dr Karembu.

"As production of food continues to reduce while the population increases, we can no longer avoid biotechnology if we are to feed our people."

Her remarks were supported by Ms Grace Wachoro of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, who said the GM varieties would be available to small-holder farmers at a cheaper price.

Testing the WEMA varieties has been informed by a series of "mock trials" conducted in 2009 in Kenya and Tanzania.

According Dr Gethi, drought-tolerant maize will reduce cases of aflatoxin contamination in maize.

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