Kenya’s Bt cotton approval opens door to other GMO crops

By Verenardo Meeme

December 20, 2019

Kenyan scientists and farm leaders are welcoming President Uhuru Kenyatta’s approval of insect-resistant, genetically modified Bt cotton for commercial use, saying it opens the door to other GM crops.

Though yesterday’s Cabinet resolution approving Bt cotton does not specifically address Kenya’s 2012 ban on GM crops, the moratorium is essentially over, according to Dr. Charles Waturu, the principle researcher on Bt cotton at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO).

“The general ban was not removed, but other crops will go through because the cabinet memo says that other GMOs will be considered on a case by case basis, meaning that the Cabinet is removing the ban essentially without mentioning it,” Waturu said. “This has paved the way for other [GM] crops. Despite the ban, it means other applications will go through. In fact, we don’t need to talk about the ban anymore.”

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) still must be completed before the crop, which successfully completed field trials conducted over a period of five years, can be commercialized. The EIA likely will be conducted in January “and by February next year, we will be done,” Waturu said.

The National Biosafety Authority is expected to give the technology developer open release approval, possibly within a week, he said. “We are now preparing for demonstrations to showcase the technology to the farmers.”

“The scientific community is very happy because this is good news not only in Kenya, but in the East African community,” Waturu added. “It’s a good beginning for the East African region. We hope that other East African countries are going to follow suit.”

Farmers, too, welcomed the news.

“The approval is going to make a great change to Kenyan cotton farmers, especially those living in arid and semi-arid areas where pests and diseases thrive in cotton, because Bt cotton has an inbuilt mechanism to deal with pests,” Mugo Magondu, chairman of the Society for Biotech Farmers of Kenya (SOBIFAK), told the Alliance for Science.

“From the NPTs (National Performance Trials) we saw that Bt cotton was able to beat pests without much [pesticide] spraying, meaning that growing Bt cotton will help us reduce cotton production costs,” he added. “We can now say that we have a cash crop and that farmers can grow the crop without much stress.”

“On behalf of the Society for Biotech Farmers of Kenya, we are very grateful for the President’s support and our members are ready for the next steps of commercialization,” he said.

The commercial farming of Bt cotton is set to ensure farmers earn more from the crop through increased production, according to a statement from the president’s Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) following the Cabinet action. It will also boost the manufacturing pillar of the president’s “Big 4” agenda, where Kenya seeks to establish itself as a regional leader in textile and apparel production.