The third day after rains came down, Joseph Kibaya is preparing and putting his old knapsack sprayer into a good condition, ready to face off with pests on his farm.
In less than a week, the maize he had planted will start to sprout. And as is the norm, pests mostly stalk borer will come for his young maize. He’s therefore not giving any chances-the sprayer and pesticides must ready.
“For many years, pests have not given us peace. We plant, they come and attack young maize, damage and reduce the production,” begins Kibaya at his home located Zion area of Mutalia in Matungulu Sub County, Machakos County.
Kibaya has also set aside at least Sh5,000 for purchase of pesticides for his three acre farm under maize. He regrets how in the past, he’s lost over 25 percent of his maize produce to the destructive pests.
However, pests attack is not the only problem Kibaya grapples with. He explains, “This area receives little rainfall which cannot fully support agriculture. Even when we go for early maturing varieties, the situation still not getting any better. Once in a while, you get but most of the time, just loses.”
Challenges Kibaya face is not an isolated case. Millions of farmers across the country continue to grapple with pests and diseases and also prolonged drought due effects of Climate Change, that largely contributes to food insecurity and malnutrition.
However, hope seems to have arrived with the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) maize farming.
Scientists laud GMO maize as a game-changer in production and food security. Dr James Karanja, Principal Investigator TELA Maize Project at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organization (KALRO) explains the technology brings to farmers varieties that are tolerant to insect pests such as fall army warm and stalk borer, and is also resistant to drought.
Dr Karanja regrets the country faces several challenges of diseases and pests and effects of climate change, causing a recurrent drought for the last 4 seasons, resulting in food shortage.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) statistics show more than three million Kenyans are at risk of starvation.
He explains, one of the way of overcoming this is by giving the farmers the best technology.
“The GMO maize technology is here to help our farmers save money they have been using to buy chemicals, spray and control against insects and from health, because the use of chemicals is associated with some health concerns. The maize will also be of good quality,” Dr Karanja explained during a media engagement at KALRO, Kiboko.
The Principal Investigator says the technology will address issues of aflatoxins contaminating maize and poor quality of maize grains. “We are talking about a healthy nation that is eating health food,” he says.
He assured farmers they will see the benefits of the technology once they start planting GMO maize.
For Kibaya, anything that will reduce the cost of pesticides is a welcome.
“Buying pesticides is costly. At times, you spent a lot of money but they don’t work effectively,” he says.
Another farmer who welcomes the GMO maize technology is Alfred Wamburu. He says, his home area of Mweiga in Kieni Sub County, Nyeri County is dry, and has of late been experiencing long dry spells hindering production of various crops and livestock feeds.
“We want that GMO maize that can somehow withstand dry conditions. Perhaps, we can grow maize for food and also livestock feeds,” he explains. He inquires where farmers will get the seeds, with hope they will be cheaper and accessible.
However Dr Karanja cautions farmers that, being drought resistant does not mean they go plant in a completely dry area. Biologically, he explains, the seeds will need rainfall in their germination and subsequence growth.
“High yield will only be realized when farmers follow the best and all agronomical practices,” advises Dr Karanja.
In October 3, President William Ruto lifted a 10 years ban on GMOs, which had prohibited open cultivation of genetically modified crops and the importation of food crops and animals feeds through biotechnology innovations.
Two weeks later, on October 18, Dr Eliud Kireger, Director General, KALRO promised the government will release GMO maize seeds for free to farmers for demonstration, next year long rains planting season.
“In the 2023 long rains planting season, KALRO and its partner African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) will avail 11MT of GM certified seed to be planted by farmers on 500,000 acres across mid altitude agro ecological zones as demonstrations pending full commercialization by private companies,” he said.
Dr Kireger revealed after a decade of successful research three GMO maize varieties including WE1259B, WE3205B and WE5206B, are recommended for release by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), though the final release and placement to the market was pending cabinet decision.
He lauded the lifting of the ban, saying it was sure way to ensure food and feed security and to safeguard our environment.
“Climate change and severity of drought and emergence of new pests such as Fall Army Worms and maize stock borer, and diseases such as Maize Lethal Necrosis pose a real threat to food, feed and nutritional security,” he explained.
He explains insect-pests are very expensive to control, with farmers spending up to Sh 12,000 per acre on pesticides alone. These pesticides are also harmful to human health and the environment especially water.
Pests significantly contribute to low production that currently stands at 7 to 10 (90kg) bags against the potential of 22 to 35 bags per acre. We lose about 13M (90kg) of maize to stock borers alone annually valued at Sh 32.5billions. Maize borers attack also increases aflatoxin contamination, which is a health hazard.
On the unconfirmed reports being peddled that GMOs products aren’t safe, scientists assure Kenyans that the technology is safe.
Dr Kireger assures, GMOs have been grown for almost 30 years with no verified health problems being reported.
He explains, “Scientifically, GMO is proven to be safe for food, feed and the environment and is currently approved for cultivation in about 70 countries worldwide. Kenya has a fully robust and functional policy, legal and institutional framework for governing use of GMOs.”
All the same, many people believe they might have already consumed GMOs maize without their knowledge. One of them, James Wekesa from Sirisia Sub County, in Bungoma County, is not worried and given opportunity will cultivate and consume the maize.
“I think we have already consumed these GMOs maize without knowing. I suspect some of the imported maize we eat in this country are genetically modified,” says Wekesa, who cannot do without ugali.
And for consumers who will not want to consume GMO maize, Eric Korir, Principal Bio-safety Officer at National Bio-safety Authority (NBA), explains manufacturers will have to label GMOs products so as to give consumers a choice on what they want to consume.
He says the move to label is not a safety concern but only meant to guide consumers in decision-making. It is there to inform the public that the product is GMO and make them decide whether they want to buy it or not.
“It will be mandatory for manufacturers to have labels that indicate the product is either GMO or non-GMO. Labelling is not a safety issue but for traceability of the GMO products in the market, with the label, we will be able to trace them and know where they are placed,” Korir explains.
Labelling of GMOs, Korir explains is a requirement by law and there is a regulation on how these products would be labelled once it is cultivated or released into the market.
Dr. Martin Mwirigi, acting institute director, of the Biotechnology Research Institute at KALRO explains climate changes and drought spells are increasing therefore the need to adapt our crops to take care of that challenge.
He says a country can only develop by taking advantage of modern technologies which enhances productivity, thereby assisting the country to get value for money.
Dr Mwirigi explains, the seeds they will be giving, a farmer can reproduce but the main challenge, like any other hybrid seed, as you continue reproducing the productivity and protection goes down.
“That is where we engage the farmers and encourage them to use certified seeds every season. That is not only for GMOs, but even for the other hybrid seeds because it gives you better returns for the investment that you make,” he explains.
And for the farmers who do not want their maize mix with GMOs on the farm, Dr Karanja advises putting a buffer zone.
“If you don’t want your maize to be contaminated, it is up to you to put a buffer zone, so that you can plant and make sure that there is that cut-crop.” he explains.