By Dr. Gilbert arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
Around the world, farmers have planted almost 5 billion acres of genetically modified crops.
Here in Kenya, we’re still waiting to plant our very first acre of commercialized GMOs. Our government still won’t let ordinary farmers like me try the technology that has revolutionized agriculture in so many places.
Things may be about to change—for the better.
The Kenya National Biosafety Authority appears ready to approve the commercialization of GM crops. Maize would come first, with cotton soon after. If this happens, it means that farmers in Kenya finally will enjoy access to the technology that so many others have come to take for granted.
This moment, assuming it arrives, has been a long time coming. In many countries, from the United States and Canada in the north to Argentina and Brazil in the south, farmers have planted GM crops for a generation. For them, GM crops aren’t a cutting-edge technology but rather an ordinary part of conventional agriculture. They’ve seen their yields go up and their pesticide use go down.
In Kenya, however, we remain behind the times, unable to take advantage of these obvious benefits. This has become yet another area in which Africa trails the rest of the planet. Sadly, we’ve chosen to lag behind, watching the rest of the world surge ahead.
GM crops aren’t just for rich countries. About nine in ten of the farmers who grow GM crops are smallholders. The vast majority work just a few acres to meet their own needs and perhaps have a little surplus to sell. In this respect, they’re just like the bulk of Kenya’s farmers. India and China are among the world’s largest growers of biotech crops.
Only three sub-Saharan countries have approved the use of GM crops: Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Sudan. The rest are like Kenya and simply don’t allow it—to the detriment of our agriculture sector.
What has happened here in Kenya? According to Dr. Charles Waturu of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, our country grew 70,000 bales of cotton in 1985. In 2013, however, this figure had dropped to just 20,000 bales of cotton. And this is evidenced by the empty shells and skeletons of what once were vibrant cotton and textile mills in Kisumu, Eldoret, Malakisi, Mwingi, Salawa and Nanyuki, to name but a few.
With its special ability to fight pests that attack plants, GM cotton gives us a fighting chance. It’s the key to recovery for Kenya’s cotton farmers. It will stop and reverse the awful declines in our country’s cotton production. Approval of GM maize would deliver similar gains. In the future, we may see crops that defeat weeds, survive drought, and add nutrients to our diets.
Gains in agriculture would lead to gains in other areas.
Last year, the World Bank announced that Kenya had become a “lower-middle income country,” meaning that our average annual income ranges between about $1,000 to about $4,000. Yet we want to do even better, having set the goal of becoming an “upper-middle income country” within the next 15 years.
“The vision aims to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment,” says Kenya Vision 2030, a blueprint for development.
We’ve got a long way to go before we make good on this goal—and, as Kenya Vision 2030 states, getting there will require improvement in our agricultural sector. Our farmers simply need to grow more, and they require the modern tools that have helped farmers elsewhere.
We aren’t asking for subsidies or special treatment. We just want access to the tools that so many farmers already have. Experience has shown that genetically modified crops are not only the best in the world, but also safe and healthy for both the farmers who grow them and the consumers who eat them.
Everything is in place for success. The National Biosafety Authority has studied GMOs for years. Our new Agriculture Secretary, Willy Bett, supports the adoption of biotechnology, as do the leaders of the Jubilee Government. Ordinary farmers know the truth about this technology and we want it for ourselves.
It’s time that we get that seed to plant that first acre.
Gilbert arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also lectures at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Global Farmer Network.