Kenya is closing in on commercialising Bt cotton, a high-yielding, genetically modified cotton varieties resistant to the notorious ball worm pests.
The crop has undergone two successful seasons of national trials to determine which varieties are suitable for which ecological zones. The outcome has been impressive, biotech researchers say.
Dr Charles Waturu, the principal researcher on Bt cotton at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), told the Nation that the new crop can yield more than twice the conventional hybrid counterpart.
"In Mwea, we harvested 6,000 kilos of Bt cotton per acre against 2,000 kilos for the conventional varieties," he explained.
With the trial results now out, researchers are finalising a report for the Cabinet in a move that could allow the lifting of the ban on imports of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and farming of the crop.
The Health ministry banned GMOs in 2012 over safety concerns, riding on the now discredited Gilles-Eric Seralini publication that linked genetically modified foods to cancer. But the ministry has stated that the ban will be lifted on a case-by-case basis. When Kenya adopts Bt cotton it will join the likes of South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Malawi, among other African countries that have approved commercialisation of biotech crops.
Commercialisation of the crop has received support from several quarters, including President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Stakeholders in the textile sector are upbeat that farming Bt cotton will help revive struggling textile factories besides improving farmers' livelihoods.
Dr Wilberforce Oundo, the Funyula MP and member of the National Assembly's Industry, Trade and Cooperative Committee, urged agencies involved in approving the technology to speed up commercialisation.
"The President has been clear on his support for Bt cotton but government agencies have been taking the country around yet MPs have been waiting to see the report," he noted.
Still, the debate on biotech crops has divided proponents and opponents.
Proponents say biotechnology offers opportunities to develop crop varieties that address challenges facing production.
But opponents have expressed concern about the human and environmental safety of the technology.
The cotton industry's underperformance has exposed the country to the volatility of the international market.
Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data shows that Kenya spent Sh26.8 billion on importing textile products in the first 10 months of 2017, 20 percent more than in the same period in 2016.
Three months ago the government injected Sh6 billion into reviving Rivatex, but the factory has been operating below capacity due to inadequate raw materials.
In 2018, 26 countries grew 191.7 million hectares of biotech crops, contributing to food security and mitigating climate-change impacts, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application. Livestock ministry PS Harry Kimtai said Bt cotton farming could significantly benefit the livestock feeds sector, which is struggling due to drought and climate change.
Cotton seeds are a popular animal feed ingredient.
"Over 80 percent of Kenya's land mass is arid and semi-arid -- livestock is the main source of livelihood in these areas. However, inadequate supply of raw materials and inadequate livestock feeds threaten the growth of this subsector," he said.
Mr Kimtai, who was speaking at a recent open forum on agricultural biotechnology in Africa, said livestock and poultry farmers have been forced to import animal feeds from neighbouring countries, raising their cost of production and making their products less competitive.
He said conventional cotton varieties have low yields, making them less rewarding for farmers.
"Agricultural biotechnology offers a great option in developing drought-tolerant [and] pest- and disease-resistant feeds that are safe for both livestock consumption and the environment.
"Leveraging on agri-biotech tools to produce sufficiently safe livestock feeds is critical in improving our livestock economy," he said.