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State should support tech advances for smallholder farmers

to create 50,000 jobs and earn Sh20bn from apparel exports a year as per Big 4 agenda, we need to use the best of every form of agriculture

In Summary

• A previous column questioned experts and government plans to allow farmers to access Bt cotton

• GMOs are grown and consumed around the world, and they have a reasonable safety record

Bt Cotton
Bt Cotton
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

I read an article published in the Star newspaper regarding Bt cotton in connection with the Rivatex revival. Whilst the author doesn’t offer an alternative seed variety or agronomic practices that will help smallholder farmers beat perennial dwindling cotton yields, he further questions experts and government plans to allow farmers to access Bt cotton.

Bt cotton is a cotton variety that has an in-built mechanism to protect itself from caterpillar pests, also commonly known as the bollworm. This protection comes from a scientific process known as Genetic Modification. The in-built mechanism is from a common soil bacterium also known as Bt, which stands for Bacillus thuringiensis.

Allowing farmers to access Bt cotton seed means liberty. Since conventional counterparts will remain available, farmers will be able to choose whatever seed variety they would like to grow, according to their needs.

Due to misinformation about biotech crops, the intended beneficiaries of many of the agricultural technologies developed by local scientists largely have not been heard. Rather, the voices of smallholder farmers have been drowned out by a vociferous and radical minority that is arguably hijacking science from reaching farmers.

Since Bt cotton is a product of private-public partnership, smallholder farmers in Kenya will be able to access improved seed at low cost, thanks to the use of royalty-free genes. This means Kenyan farmers will not be compelled to pay extra costs for genetically modified crops.

The author points out that lack of storage facilities, contracting and lack of access to seed are the major stumbling blocks to desired productivity. This is only part of the story. In fact, farmers are still planting the indigenous seed varieties that have subjected their crops to perennial loss because they have no choice.

The Bt cotton protects itself from damage by the African bollworm, reducing the number of pesticide sprays needed from 12 per season to about 3-4 per season. This reduction in pesticide use is beneficial to human health and the environment.

According to experts, the reduced costs associated with bollworm control through Bt cotton will also increase farmer’s returns, improving their well-being. In addition, Bt cotton varieties can reach their maximum potential because the initial bolls, which are the greatest contributor to the overall yield, are protected from insect damage. A more reliable harvest will give farmers additional confidence to invest in their farms and improve their farming practices.

According to the International Service for Acquisition of Agri Biotech Applications, two African countries — South Africa and Sudan — grew biotech cotton on approximately 0.3 million acres. Hectarage increased in those two countries in the last season, indicating farmers’ confidence in the technology. Swaziland, eSwatini, has also begun growing Bt cotton, with good results, and Nigeria is now putting Bt cotton seeds in the hands of its farmers.

Bt cotton has a history of safe use, having been on the market for over two decades. The crops’ safety evaluation will be done according to international scientific standards. These standards are accepted by credible bodies such as WHO and FAO.

Before a product is placed in the market, it is highly tested to meet local and international standards. Further, GMOs are grown and consumed around the world, and they have a reasonable safety record. In fact, due to testing and regulations, they are safer than conventional crops.

Kenya has a requisite capacity to regulate Bt cotton. It has established a national policy on biotechnology development, known as Biosafety Act No. 2 of 2009. This puts mechanisms for the safe application of the technology.

The Kenyan government, through its Big 4 action plan, is banking on Bt cotton to create 50,000 jobs and generate Sh20 billion in apparel export earnings per year.

For us to produce enough cotton and realise better and safe food production to feed the growing population, we need to use the best of every form of agriculture to get it right. This includes organic, integrated pest management, GM crops and gene-edited crops. Technology is not a panacea, but it is part of the solution.