The Star (Nairobi)

6 May 2014

Kenya Moves Closer to GM Maize

Kenya is inching closer to the commercialisation of a drought-tolerant maize variety developed using the controversial genetic modification technology.

Local and international scientists estimate that the maize variety will be ready for farmers' sampling in three years time.

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) has harvested its confined field trials, the fifth since the experiments started in 2010, which impressed scientists.

In such experiments, confined trials are conducted for seven seasons, and then subjected to National Performance Trials for two seasons.

The scientists expect that legal challenges that disallow commercialisation of GM crops will be resolved before the maize is available to farmers.

Dr Murenga Mwimali, country coordinator for Wema and maize breeder at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute-Katumani, says Wema project will bridge the gap in food inadequacy currently being experienced in most parts of the country.

He says preliminary results on the six trials conducted were showing the potential of increasing maize productivity by the minimum 10 percent required than any other drought tolerant variety currently in the market.

"We expect to generate more evidence to support scientific data that the product being developed is superior to those already in markets," he says.

Kenya has been conducting trials on drought tolerant maize since 2010 to help address food insecurity in the country especially in arid regions like Turkana County and Eastern parts of the country.

Dr Mwimali explains that the project is not only basing its research on GM technology but at the same time it has varieties achieved through the conventional breeding as well as using marker assisted breeding.

"We are coming up with a technology that will address food insecurity by giving farmers maize variety better than what they have already," he says.

But this work has not been without challenges.

"We have a challenge with current ban on importation of GM foods in the country which has sent mixed signals to the donor communities who support biotechnology research within the region," he said.

The ban came into effect in November 2012 after a cabinet meeting.

However, Kenyan scientists are optimistic the ban will be lifted soon to pave way for commercialization of various GM crops currently under trials.

According to Dr. Charles Kariuki, KARI-Katumani centre director, farmers in drought prone counties such Makueni and Turkana who are planting maize which perform poorly in those regions, should abandon the practice and concentrate on crop varieties that do well in such arid areas.

"There is need to introduce crop diversification that suits weather and climatic condition of a given area in the country," he says.

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