• We cannot talk about sustainable livelihoods and at the same time undermine the ability of farmers to own, use and freely breed indigenous seeds.
• Seed varieties under trial are not developed in Kenya and remain the manufacturer’s intellectual property.
The reopening of Rivatex, the once giant textile firm, is no doubt a laudable initiative and investment towards economic growth. Rivatex Centre is expected to employ more than 3,000 youths and impact more than 100,000 farmers who will be supplying it with cotton fibre.
However, Rivatex management pointed out that the missing link to making the project successful is low supply of raw material—cotton fibre from farmers. Speakers attributed this to lack of technical know-how, capacity and “poor varieties”.
But, what are the government’s plans to ensure that farmers are in a good position to supply cotton fibre? One would expect improved extension services; storage facilities; price regulation and contracting to ensure fair and stable prices. It appears the government is offering none of these. Instead, farmers are likely to be offered expensive GMO cotton seeds (Bt Cotton).
The abbreviation, “Bt” was corrupted at the reopening to mean biotechnology cotton. This is incorrect. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a naturally occurring bacteria that produces a toxin that kills pests, including cotton leaf worm. Pest management can be easily controlled through functional biodiversity and integrated organic practices.
Genes from the bacteria are infused into the cotton genome in the lab at molecular level. This process is called genetic modification and falls within the broader family of biotechnology sciences but has a clear distinction from other biotechnology practices and technologies. It is falsely argued that it is a form of breeding. It is important that Kenyans understand the government is proposing genetically modified organisms.
The biggest mistake Kenya could ever make is to believe that the commercialisation of Bt Cotton is the “direct intervention” to solve farmers’ problems. GMO cotton has been commercialised in few other African countries and has failed to meet its much-hyped efficiency and production potential.
In the rush to prescribe Bt Cotton as the silver bullet to cotton production problems, the President, in a rather unclear directive, urged counties to “support” farmers. The central government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, should provide clearer guidance to county governments on the agricultural sector’s development. Additionally, there is a need to monitor county interventions to ensure accountability. There is a need to create synergies between county and national programmes, such as reviving the cotton sector.
The biggest mistake Kenya could ever make is to believe that the commercialisation of Bt Cotton is the “direct intervention” to solve farmers’ problems. GMO cotton has been commercialised in few other African countries and has failed to meet its much-hyped efficiency and production potential. Burkina Faso and South Africa are illustrative of the fact that GMOs promote a form of agriculture that throws farmers into long-term dependencies, undermines critical biodiversity and, by promoting large-scale industrial infrastructure, drives millions into poverty.
Kenyans have a right to know and understand more about this technology; and to participate meaningfully in the decision on whether to allow GMOs on our farms and plates. Public participation processes should be followed to ensure that Kenyans know the applicants behind Bt Maize and Bt Cotton and the results of risk assessments underway. GM cotton will end up on our plates, because it is used to make cottonseed oil and cotton seed cake (used for animal feed).
Notably, seed varieties under trial are not developed in Kenya and remain the manufacturer’s intellectual property. Commercialisation of this technology serves the company’s interest and not our farmers.
We cannot talk about sustainable livelihoods and at the same time undermine the ability of farmers to own, use and freely breed indigenous seeds. Locally produced seeds, that are better adapted to our environment, allow farmers to mitigate the effects of climate change and increasingly unpredictable market trends.
With real fears and uncertainties among Kenyans, there is an urgent need for the government, through its research institutions and mandated authorities, to investigate the short and long-term impacts of GMO cotton, specific to the Kenyan context. The best actions the government can take are to give farmers access to conventional seeds; provide reliable extension services; and ensure proper management of buying agreements – of non-GM varieties – with manufacturers.