GMO maize advancing in Kenya

By Verenardo Meeme

February 22, 2019

Kenyan smallholder farmers may soon benefit from a maize variety that can tolerate drought and protect itself against the devastating stem borer and fall armyworm pests.

Research is progressing well on the genetically modified (GM) TELA maize, revealed James Karanja, principal investigator of the TELA project. The research outcome will contribute to better food availability and affordability, while bridging the country’s maize production gap.

As such, the TELA project aligns with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “Big 4” agenda of food security, manufacturing, affordable housing and affordable health care, Karanja said.

As part of that “Big 4” agenda, Kenya already is engaged in national field trials for GM pest-resistant Bt cotton. Its success is expected to unlock the doors for TELA maize.

In addition to being a staple food for over 85 percent of the Kenyan population, according to a 2014 study by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, every part of the maize plant has economic value. The stalk, grain, leaves, tassel and cob are used to produce a large variety of food and non-food products, including starch, oil and livestock feed.

‘‘GM maize will help me to fight fall armyworm without spraying chemicals,” said Rodney Kili, a young maize farmer in Kenya’s Rift Valley. “It gives me hope that I can continue farming despite farming challenges. GM is the way to go, considering climate change and new pests emerging.”

The stem borer destroys 12 percent of the nation’s maize production, while fall armyworm causes an average maize loss of 60 percent, according to research by the Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI).

The government’s goal of achieving a seasonal maize production target of 49-52 million bags per season, while controlling the two major pests in the breadbasket areas of Kenya, requires an improved variety of grain, Karanja told the Alliance for Science in an exclusive interview. The TELA maize will also help to make farming safer by reducing pesticide use and incidences of aflatoxin outbreak, while lowering overall production costs.

“The benefits of Bt maize are obvious,” Karanja said. “The farmers are eagerly waiting for the technology.”

TELA is derived from a Latin word meaning double shield. The project aims to develop and deploy a GM insect-resistant maize variety that also has the ability to tolerate drought. The TELA project is a continuation of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, which developed and released over 60 conventionally-bred maize hybrids. WEMA also conducted confined field trials (CFTs) for genetically modified insect-resistant (Bt) and drought-tolerant (DT) maize varieties, as well as one that combined the two traits.

The WEMA project also initiated the June 2015 application to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) for the environmental release of Bt maize. The NBA granted a conditional approval only for the purpose of conducting National Performance Trials (NPTs) and collecting compositional analysis data, but not for cultivation, importation or commercialization.

However, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was required before the NPTs could be conducted, Karanja explained. The EIA was completed, and researchers are now waiting for the National Environment Management Agency to approve it

Prof. Hamadi Iddi Boga, principal secretary of the State Department of Agricultural Research in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation, said his office has asked NEMA to allow the Bt maize research to proceed.

“Any technology that lowers the cost of production and increases yields will, in the end, benefit the consumer,” Boga said. “Further, the technology will reduce the number of pesticide sprays needed to manage major maize pests like fall armyworm and maize stalk borer, thereby benefiting the environment also.

“We are taking one step at a time,” he continued. “We must overcome the fear and fear-mongering about the technology for commercialization to happen. There is a lot of misinformation and fake news which make the consumer and decision makers apprehensive.”

Added Prof. Valerie Palapala Adema, a gene scientist and dean of the School of Science and Technology at the United States International University — Africa: ‘‘Science ensures that the process of developing genetically modified crops is very elaborate and that all risks are addressed. People need to be informed about GMOs objectively by experts.’’

Photo: CIMMYT/B.Wawa