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Lack of seeds curtail uptake of Bt cotton

Aidah Nasimiyu, a BT Cotton farmer works at her farm in Apegei village in Busia County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

David Kitiku, a farmer from Yatta, Machakos County, is laughing all the way to the bank after realising a bountiful harvest from his genetically modified Bt cotton.

Kitiku is among hundreds of cotton farmers who have made a killing from the sale of cotton, with a kilo of the produce now going for Sh52 up from Sh23 some years ago. Kitiko harvested over 1,200kg of cotton in the last season.

This is thanks to the government’s efforts to revive the cotton sector as spelled out in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda. To boost the government’s plans, a private investor, Thika Cloths Mills Textile Industries, has been buying cotton from the farmers.

Kitiku said the government’s move to revive cotton farming has brought good tidings, opening opportunities for job creation and poverty eradication in drylands.

Thika Cloths Mills Textile Industries Chief Executive Tejal Dhodhia said they had been going all the way to Tanzania to source cotton, but that would be a thing of the past after the company signed an agreement with the local farmers to supply it with cotton at a better cost.

Kitiku cultivated Bt cotton and the conventional varieties. Though he planted the conventional cotton first, about two weeks before, the Bt cotton started yielding within four months.

“This Bt cotton has its good sides, it matured fast and the yield was better than the ordinary cotton. Although the two varieties were attacked by disease, the Bt cotton did well while the ordinary cotton did not even mature,” said Kitiku.

He added Thika Cloths Mills has been helpful to the farmers by giving them pesticides adding that the Bt cotton was far much suitable for the region as its yields are triple the old variety.

Another farmer, Peter Kiio, said before, their produce used to take time before they hit the market, but now that there is a ready market, they hope that things will get better.

“We almost abandoned cotton farming but since the Cloth Mills Industry came to our rescue, we are hopeful,” said Kiio.

Exploitation by brokers

The farmers had abandoned the crop years ago due to exploitation by brokers who bought their fibre cheaply.

The farmers however decried the attack on their cotton fibre by bollworms, reducing yields and quality.

They said some of their cotton plants withered after the pest attacks complaining that they sometimes could not afford pesticides due to the harsh economic time brought by the Covid19 pandemic.

These were just a few of the disadvantages mentioned by the farmer from the Eastern region. However, the good outweighed the bad regarding Bt cotton.

In Busia, farmers decried the delay in the supply of the Bt cotton seeds. Chris Wekesa from Bungoma said seeds currently planted in cotton-growing regions of Busia, Kakamega, and Bungoma are sourced from outside the country but logistical challenges have hampered timely delivery.

The seeds, according to Wekesa, are expected to be delivered by the Fibre Crops Directorate, which is under Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA).

He expressed fears that continued delay in the delivery of the seeds may discourage farmers who have embraced cotton farming from the time Cabinet approved the production of the high-yielding Bt cotton in 2019.

For the farmers in Western Kenya, the main challenge boils down to the expense of the cotton seeds. Due to the genetically modified cotton containing the Bt bacterium, it means that the plant is sterile by design and cannot be reproduced.

“The Bt cotton seeds are more expensive than local, non-genetically modified varieties. This Bt cotton has its good sides, it matured fast and the yield was better than the ordinary cotton, the disease came after cotton was already produced, but the ordinary cotton was still attacked and did not even mature said Wekesa adding that they, therefore, opt for the low yielding cotton seeds.

Biggest worry

Seeds cannot be reused and farmers need to buy new stock for every season. According to Wekesa, this, along with the unavailability of seeds in local companies, has given the government a near-monopoly on cotton seeds in the country and that has been one of the biggest worries for farmers.

Though the seeds produce higher yields due to the pest-resistant trait, farmers have to buy new seed supplies each year in addition to fertiliser and insecticides.

He said the number of growers who planted the crop in 2020 was higher compared to this year because the seeds were distributed for free.

“If they want the farmers to continue planting cotton with the enthusiasm they had in 2020 when the hybrid seed came, they should reduce the cost of seeds to approximately Sh500 for one-kilo packet,” said Wekesa.

In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Georg-August-University of Gottingen, it was found that farmers using the genetically enhanced Bt cotton increased their cotton yields by 25 per cent, and their overall profits by 50 per cent.

However, conflicting views propose that GM crops will hurt small-scale farmers who eventually cannot pay for the crops that were grown on their own land and only benefit larger-scale farmers.

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