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Glitch in GM maize roll out

ROUND TABLE
By | Nov 11th 2010 | 5 min read

By DANN OKOTH

Kenya will not start commercially growing genetically modified maize until at least 2015, although it has the capacity, The Standard can exclusively reveal.

“It could take at least five to ten years before we can roll out Bt maize to our farmers for commercial production,” said Dr Reuben K Soi, Deputy Head of Biotechnology Programme at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari).

“This is because Monsanto, the company that developed the Bt maize gene would want to recoup 50 per cent of its investment before they can allow its commercial production. The negotiations are ongoing,” he says.

This could delay the adoption of the technology despite the recent signing of the Biosafety Bill into law by President Mwai Kibaki that led to the creation of National Biosafety Office, which will formulate rules for the sector making the cultivation of transgenic maize possible.

The adoption of the technology would potentially cut the average maize crop loss by 15 per cent or 500,000 tonnes annually through stalk borer invasion and save the country some Sh6 billion.

Soi says Kari and Monsanto are seeking funding from international donors to finance the introduction of the MON-89034 Bt gene in local maize varieties and subsequently, seed production.

royalty-free

“The technology has been given to Kari and we are in the process of introducing the gene in local varieties in a restricted environment,” Soi says.

“Once the trials are complete and we have Bt version of the local varieties, Monsanto will enter an agreement with a seed company to produce the seeds on behalf of Kenya, it is this seed company that will pay Monsanto on agreed modules so that farmers can access the transgenic varieties royalty-free,” he says.

Monsanto Corporate Affairs Director Kinyua Mbijjiwe says the company is working closely with Kari to ensure the technology reaches farmers. “You see it is one thing to have the technology (the Bt gene) and quite another to get it to the farmers. You will need to breed it in all the local varieties and that is a huge undertaking,” he says.

He adds: “It is not that we want someone to pay us but we are keen on assisting the government to acquire this technology as soon as possible for the benefit of the whole country.”

He says Kari and Monsanto were drafting project proposals for Bt maize research and adoption to present to international donors. “Once Kari approached us to provide them with the Bt maize technology we sat down and wrote a proposal for international donor funding because apparently the undertaking would involve huge costs,” says Kinyua.

“We are re-drafting the project proposals to attract funding from renowned international donors like Bill and Melinda Gates foundation among others,” he says.

Bt maize has been genetically modified to produce an insecticide – Bt toxin — that kills certain insects that destroys the crop. The gene transferred to the maize comes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which is where the abbreviation Bt comes from.

The bacterium has long been known to possess an insecticide effect. Unlike many chemical insecticides, Bt toxin is harmless to humans and is broken down quickly — this is why Bt preparations are frequently used as biological plant protectants in organic farming.

But what exactly does Bt toxin do? Bt toxin is a protein. It is produced by Bacillus thuringiensis in a non-toxic form to start with — it is only in the gut of certain chewing insects that it is converted into a toxic form.

There are many different Bt toxins, but each one affects only certain insect groups. CryI — for instance, has a specific effect on certain moths, CryIII acts against certain beetles.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) such as Bt maize are subjects of great controversy and one of the issues often raised is whether there is a difference between the Bt toxin formed in Bt maize and the toxin used in plant protectants.

The toxins in Bt plants and in Bt preparations have a similar effect. In both, the toxin is present in a precursor form (protoxin) that is converted into active toxin only in the presence of certain enzymes in the gut.

cyrstal form

The difference is that the Bt genes introduced into the plant have been shortened and adapted to the plant. In the plant the protein is present in a dissolved form, rather than as a crystal.

The main Bt maize varieties used around the world are those with resistance to the stock borer. The same is true of the Bt maize variety approved for cultivation in Europe, MON810, which produces the Cry1Ab Bt toxin that targets the European stork borer.

Kinyua says the Bt gene from Monsanto is effective on all the four types of stock borer disease and would reduce crop loss due to the disease by 15 per cent. “The stalk borer is also responsible for a secondary damage by causing a mould to form leading to afflotoxin poisoning in maize. The beauty about the gene is that it also covers the damage in secondary storage,” he says.

Kari’s move to seek the Bt maize technology was prompted by the failure of the first Bt genes under a project funded by the US based Syngenta Foundation and Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA). “We found that the Bt under trial was only effective on the CryAb, Cry1Ba and kas strains of the stalk borer but not the fourth. We were now looking for a gene that can address all the strains that is why we approached Monsanto,” says Muo Kasina who is co-ordinating Kari Bt maize trials.

Currently, he says, the research organisation is looking for funding to carry out field trails on the Bt maize from Monsanto. Meanwhile crop specialists in Kenya and Uganda have laid the groundwork for confined field trials to commence later this year for new varieties of maize genetically modified to survive recurrent droughts that threaten over 300 million Africans for whom maize is life, it emerged at a recent African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) at the World Food Prize Symposium.

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