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Trials on drought-tolerant maize underway

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By | Oct 12th 2010 | 3 min read
By | October 12th 2010
FINANCIAL STANDARD

By Bernard Muthaka

'Shambafication' is the new terminology coined to describe the continued encroachment on and subsequent degradation of land for farming in Africa, a phenomenon brought on by a growing population that largely depends on ancient agricultural techniques.

A population that has increased from 760 to 970 million in only the last 10 years has resulted in farmers being pushed to encroach on fragile ecosystems, often with inefficient farming technologies including low use of fertiliser.

More and more people in Africa are depending on land that is becoming less productive, with estimates saying the continent loses about 4 billion dollars every year due to soil nutrients mining.

The good news is that this month, Kenya takes a major step towards getting more from its farmed land when the first trials of genetically engineered maize begin under the auspices of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) project.

Huge funding

This follows an approval given to Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) by the National Biosafety Authority, the body responsible for promotion, regulation and monitoring of biotechnology in the country.

Steering the Wema Project are the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Monsanto, and the National Agricultural Research Systems in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa. The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G Buffett Foundation.

Researchers in the five African countries are using conventional and advanced techniques, including marker-assisted breeding, as well as genetic engineering to develop hybrids that use water more efficiently during moderate drought.

A leading biotechnology firm, Monsanto, has provided to the Wema project, royalty-free, a gene that has been found to help plants of adapted maize germplasm to cope with the stress of drought.

Addressing a recent meeting of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Nairobi, Wema Project Manager Dr Sylvester Oikeh said the first hybrids of the maize, developed from conventional breeding technology, are expected in the market in the next two or three years.

Genetically modified varieties are expected in the market in about seven years. The Wema project, builds on CIMMYT’s Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) initiative by using advanced breeding technology to rapidly develop new maize varieties with enhanced drought tolerance for farmers.

Increased productivity

Dr Oikeh said under moderate drought, the maize varieties are expected to increase yields by 20 to 35 per cent over current varieties. “This means an additional two million metric tonnes of maize will be available during drought years, to feed between 14 and 21 million people,” he said.

In the bulk of maize growing areas of Kenya, the yield of maize ranges between 1.1 and 2.5 tonnes per hectare, with the yield being determined by factors such as availability of water and nutrients, and the presence of pests and diseases.

A recent study done by CIMMYT in 13 countries said that Kenya will be one of the biggest beneficiaries in poverty reduction and economic prosperity among African countries that adopt drought tolerant maize varieties.

The study said drought-tolerant maize can bring sub-Saharan Africa’s farmers cumulative economic benefits of nearly a billion dollars in the next six years.

Hardy seeds

The study, reporting on the potential impact of drought-tolerant maize in Africa, estimates that drought-tolerant maize varieties will provide a yield advantage of between 10 and 34 per cent over normal improved varieties.

It estimates over 17.5 per cent yield increase in Kenya, the highest increase among the 13 African countries in the study including Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ghana.

The study looked at drought-tolerant varieties developed through conventional breeding techniques and did not include the additional potential accruing from transgenic varieties.

Dr Oikeh regretted that while genetically enhanced medicines have been accepted without controversy, the development of genetically-modified food varieties is still dogged by strong lobbying, mainly from countries where food security is no longer an issue.

“Largely due to the application of science to agriculture, countries in Europe are today producing food in surplus. Health and longevity, not food security, are now of more urgency, and these countries have readily accepted the use of GM technology to produce medicine,” he said.

Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on maize for food and livelihoods. Rainfall in the region is extremely erratic and drought destabilises crop production and erodes food security.

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