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AGRICULTURE

Viable GMO policy urgently needed

With the right GMO seed, crop yields can be increased by as much as 500%.

In Summary

• We need long-term irrigation schemes, both for large plantations and small-scale farmers.

• We need more efficient and shorter supply chains, so that the link between farmer and consumer is not too long.

I cannot quite remember if we had a ‘National Day of Prayer for Rain’ during the recent prolonged drought. But such a day – solemnly and officially set aside for prayers whenever the long rains failed – was a routine feature of Kenyan life just over a decade ago.

We would have a huge public event back then, at a venue such as Uhuru Park, with massive crowds in attendance, and with representatives of all kinds of religious faiths lining up to beseech the gods to let the heavens open up and rain upon the already-ploughed Kenyan maize fields.

Even those who led some of the smaller splinter groups of Christians wore colourful robes and amazing hats, and styled themselves as “prophets”, “apostles”, “bishops” (and, occasionally, even a self-anointed “Pope”) would turn up to pray for rain.

 

This may seem absurd – and in many ways it is – but the fact is regular and predictable rainfall has long been a matter of life and death in Kenya. The great majority of our population live in the rural areas and are totally dependent on what is technically termed as “rain-fed agriculture”.

Given this situation, there are three considerations that ought to weigh heavily on the minds of those who guide our agriculture policy.

So, what this report is effectively claiming is that a Kenyan farmer who currently harvests about six bags of maize per acre, could hope to harvest 48 bags per acre, if he had GMO maize seeds as potent as the ones used in the US.

First, we need more efficient and shorter supply chains, so that the link between farmer and consumer is not too long, and there is only a small gap between the retail price of any farm produce, and what the individual farmer receives for his harvest.

For in Kenya, whenever harvest time rolls around, no matter what the crop, we read of farmers having to dispose of their crops for a pittance to “middlemen” who mysteriously appear at just such times.

Second, we need long-term irrigation schemes, both for large plantations and small-scale farmers.

But above all else, we need to facilitate the planting of the most modern and scientifically produced seeds, be they for maize or beans or rice or wheat or potatoes.

In short, we need a viable policy on genetically modified seeds – or GMO seeds, as they are generally known.

This however is easier said than done, even though with the right GMO seed, crop yields can be increased by as much as 500 per cent; marginal drylands can blossom and produce a plentiful harvest, even without irrigation; new cash crops can be introduced to those regions which are currently growing crops for which there is little or no demand; etc.

 

In a Special Report on GMOs by Reuters that I came across about two years ago, the advance of GMO crops in the US – which took place over several decades – was summarised as follows (and I should explain here that a “bushel” of corn is the equivalent of roughly 25kg):

U.S. farmers started planting the first significant acres of hybrid corn in the 1930s, and by 1950 it made up nearly all the corn seeded in the United States. Yields exploded. Farmers who reaped 20.5 bushels of corn per acre in 1930 harvested an average of 38.2 bushels in 1950, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further hybrid breeding breakthroughs generated100 bushels per acre in 1978.

After conventional breeding breakthroughs became harder to find, corn gained new vigor through the 1990s with genetic modification. In 1996, U.S. regulators approved corn that was genetically engineeredIn the 20 years since GMO corn reached U.S. farms, yields jumped another 37 percent to a record 174.6 bushels per acre.

Such has been the experience of the US with just one crop, when it came to GMOs.

In Kenya, what Americans call “corn”, we are familiar with as “maize”; and we measure our harvests not in bushels but in “90kg bags”.

So, what this report is effectively claiming is that a Kenyan farmer who currently harvests about six bags of maize per acre, could hope to harvest 48 bags per acre, if he had GMO maize seeds as potent as the ones used in the US.

And yet, as far as I am aware, Kenya has yet to pass the legislation that would facilitate the use of GMO seeds by our local farmers.