- Published on Monday, 26 March 2012 10:57
Researchers have identified six genetically modified (GM) orphan crops; they say will shield East African farmers from the effects of climate change and ensure food security. The crops are all pest resistant and drought tolerant meaning farmers will no longer be dependent on rain fed agriculture. They also have breeding times that are 25 to 30 per cent quicker than their non-genetically modified alternatives.
According to Dr Margaret Karembu the Director of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), shorter breeding times are vital as bio scientists assess climate changes, and adapt crops to survive the prevailing climatic conditions.
The six orphan crops chosen for a 5 year program called ‘Bio-resources Innovation Network for Eastern Africa Development (Bio Innovate)’ are sorghum, millet, cassava, sweet potato, potato and bean. The program is to be managed by the International Research Livestock Institute (ILRI) at their Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BeCA) hub.
Segenet Kelemu a plant pathologist at BeCA, said the crops were chosen for their pro-poor characteristics, which include limited investment, drought and disease resistance, and are being promoted in six countries to maximise the benefits of the program
Maize the commonest staple in Kenya was excluded as “it’s a quite a bit of investment” and drought tolerant varieties are still being worked on, said Kelemu. Also “we need to diversify and not grow it where it doesn’t grow”m said Professor Shaukata Abdulrazak of the National Council for Science and Technology. The usual practice of growing maize, where it’s not suited climatically results in food shortages in the country, he said.
In Kenya, the introduction of genetically modified crops to farmers’ fields still hinges on the bio safety bill being gazetted. In Africa the 3 countries already in the biotech league are Egypt, South Africa and Burkina Faso. In Burkina Faso, where they have been growing Bt GM cotton since 2008/2009, yields have gone up by 30 per cent in 2010.
The Bt cotton has cut by half the number of times farmers spray from the initial 12 times a year. That has benefited the environment as chemical toxins are not released as before. “Every pesticide sprayed has carbon dioxide components,” in addition to ones released by the motorised sprayers, said Kelemu.
The initial roll out of the new seeds will involve educating grassroots farmers on GM benefits. Then, through seed companies, extension officers, and civil society, farmers will be trained on how to manage the new varieties. This will also involve farming trials around the country to test the GM seeds viability.
For now, GM seeds and trials are restricted to the premises of research institutions. “Commercialising is pegged on the bio safety regulation,” said Karembu. But, once the new law is gazetted, the varieties will be ready for release to farmers.
According to 2010 statistics from ISAAA there are now 29 countries in GM farming compared to 25 in 2009. Total land size for these is 148m hectares, representing 10 per cent of the 1.5 billion hectares of crop land in the world.
Soybean is the most dominantly cultivated GM crop globally, occupying 73.3 million hectares, equivalent to 50 per cent of total global GM land.
In Africa, of the 3 countries growing GM crops, South Africa has the biggest GM land size at 2.2m hectares and has diversified into GM maize, soybean and cotton, while Egypt has just 0.1m hectares of maize.
America is the world biggest GM crop cultivator with 66.8m hectares cultivated across 8 GM crops.
This 5 year Bio Innovate initiative in East Africa is being funded by the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) to the tune of $16m and is the first of its kind in Africa. It will also help farmers to improve the processing of waste from sisal and coffee production, and safely treat waste water from leather tanneries and slaughterhouses.
Besides Kenya, other countries covered by the Bio Innovate Project are Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda. “Bio Innovate…is at the heart of the region’s greatest challenges-providing enough food in the face of climate change, diversifying crops and addressing productivity constraints…threatening the livelihoods of millions,” said Carlos Sere, ILRI’s Director General.
More details can be found at www.bioinnovate-africa.org or www.ilri.org
Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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