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December 19, 2018

Can genetic maize rescue our farmers from Fall Armyworm?

The army worm burrows into cobs./AGENCIES
The army worm burrows into cobs./AGENCIES

Genetically modified maize, Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) could be Kenya’s silver bullet in the fight against Fall Armyworm which has so far destroyed more than 200,000 acres of maize farms since 2016.

The biologically modified seed is incorporated with specific protein content that chocks the worm which continues to wreak havoc across Africa.

The maize variety first came to Kenya through African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) IN 2012 under a public-private partnership project, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).

Speaking to the Star last week, technical operations director at AATF Emmanuel Okogbenin said that Kenya and Africa can best tackle the issue of Fall Armyworm through biotechnology.

He said BT maize has already been tested in various markets across the world prevalent with the pest and has proved effective. He added that the variety has helped farmers in Brazil and South Africa minimize on use of pesticides and increase productivity

"The adoption of Bt maize together with excellent soil management practices can see Kenya increase its productivity by four folds and cut on importation. The variety only chock targeted pests and has no impact on beneficial insects and has no health implication on consumers,’’ said Okogbenin

Although the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) granted a conditional approval to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), the developers of the Bt maize, and AATF for the environmental release in February 2016, the parliament and ministry of health rejected a planned trial of the variety on health grounds

We continue to fight misinformation around genetically modified crops through seminars and workshops. Bt crops have specific proteins that only alter intended gene. No one has ever turned into an egg after eating it,’’ said Okogbenin

In 2012, Kenya banned importation of GMOs after a research team led by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen in France published a study that found rats exposed to genetically engineered maize were more likely to develop tumors and die earlier. The study was however retracted in November 2013 after data were found to be inconclusive and its conclusions unreliable

The continued attack of Kenya’s main staple food-maize by Fall Armyworm has send the government and scientists back to the drawing board, reviving the debate over whether Kenya should adopt Genetically Modified Maize.

The GM technology is welcome, but scientists are divided

Speaking from US via teleconference on Tuesday last week, Regina Eddy, policy and engagement coordinator, Fall Armyworm Task Force, USAID Bureau of Food Security, urged Africa to consider GM crops as a measure towards curbing Fall Armyworm

She expressed fear that Fall Armyworm will continue to spread rapidly as the current conditions allow it to thrive.

"The eggs and moth of Fall armyworm will be there for the rest of the year. They will go to reproductive cycle, feeding on crops, thereby damaging and lowering the yield,” she said.

"One of the first beneficial approaches is to have the plant itself resist the attack. That’s possible with a GM - a genetically-modified - maize seed; the worm simply doesn’t attack it. I should mention, 85 per cent of the commercial farmers in the U.S. and in Brazil use a GM seed. So right there you will have protected the plant and environment’’

"Lusike Wasilwa, head of crop systems at KALRO insists that Kenya must invest in seed innovation including the adoption of genetically modified crops if it is serious about attaining food for all goal as enshrined in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s big four agenda

Farmers should be ready to incur an extra cost if they really want to achieve better yields. Genetically crops use less fertilizer and pesticides, hence cost effective and better for environment,’’ she told this writer in 2016

She added that, apart from reducing contamination of water bodies depended upon by both flora and fauna for survival, excessive use of pesticides on farm acidify soils and kill soil forming micro-organisms, hence rendering it infertile to support vegetation.

Besides health fears, anti GMO crusader are worried that the technology will cause genetic disruption, creating deadly weeds that will cause more problems to farmers

Wanjiru Kamau from the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network argues that uncontrollable cross breed via pollination which is likely to run more plants into extinction is inevitable.

"There is need to prove that GM crops introduced into the market are sterile in order to save indigenous crops. There is also a risk of this crops breeding with weeds to create monster weeds that will be hard to deal with,’’ Wanjiru once told this writer

Kenya struggling to deal with Fall Armyworm

As the government maintains its firm stand commercialization of Bt maize, farmers continue to incur huge loses. Already farmers in most parts of Western Kenya and Rift Valley have reported to have lost their young crops to the pest

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