By Dr. Gilbert arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
Last week’s elections in my country of Kenya marked a turning point as our nation embraces the role of scientific advancement to develop innovative processes to feed its people—and now I’m optimistic that within two years, I’ll finally enjoy access to the GMO seeds that farmers in so many other countries take for granted.
The world’s attention, of course, is presently fixed on Kenya’s politics rather than its agriculture.
In the presidential race on August 8, Uhuru Kenyatta defeated Raila Odinga, 54.27 percent to 44.74 percent. Our country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has certified the result and observers from the African Union and the European Union deemed the election fair and valid. So has former U.S Secretary of State John Kerry, who participated in the oversight.
Barring a complication, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, Deputy President William Ruto, will take the oath of office on August 29.
Unfortunately, Odinga has chosen to protest his loss and we’ve seen deadly clashes between his supporters and security forces. Thankfully, we have not witnessed anything like the horror of nearly a decade ago, when more than 1,000 people died following the 2007 elections.
The success of our latest elections suggests that Kenya has taken its place among the nations of the world as a state that cherishes democracy in the management of its affairs.
Like most Kenyans, I hope that now we can get on with our ordinary lives as construction workers, nurses, teachers, and more.
Most of us, of course, are farmers: Agriculture dominates Kenya’s economy.
Food security played a major role during the presidential campaign. The price of unga—our staple food of maize meal—had risen sharply, due in part to a bad drought. People were hungry and worried about what they would eat next. President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto have stressed the importance of available, accessible and affordable food and the government took quick action this year to import and subsidize maize so that by June, Kenyan consumers were able to buy a 2kg packet of unga for Kes. 90 – about 90 US cents.
There are no simple solutions to the problem of food security, but we’re on the brink of adopting a technological tool that promises to help—and the results of last week’s elections may represent a crucial step along the way.
Few public figures addressed GMO farming during the presidential race. As far as I know, President Kenyatta never brought it up specifically, even as he discussed the importance of fertilizers, irrigation, and mechanization; more specifically the fact that the Jubilee Government would subsidize fertilizers so that prices would go down from the present Kes. 1800 to Kes. 1200 per 50kgs.
Only one national public figure has talked about GMOs directly: The victorious Deputy President Ruto.
I’ve known Deputy President Ruto since he was first elected to parliament twenty years ago from my home county of Uasin Gishu. I’ve watched him rise in government, serving as the Minister for Agriculture and then the Minister for Higher Education. In 2013, he became Deputy President.
In the past, he has called for Kenya to adopt GMO technology. Last month, at a function I attended in our hometown of Eldoret, he talked about the accomplishments of the Kenyatta administration and urged investments in local textile mills to take advantage of the impending adoption of Bt cotton. As cotton yields boom, he said, Kenya will need more cotton ginneries.
Cotton obviously is not a food crop, though the coming of GMO cotton should increase rural and industrial prosperity, creating wealth and jobs for our people.
A week before the elections, on August 1, a high-level team of representatives from Kenya’s Ministry of the Environment, the Kenya National Biosafety Authority (NBA), KALRO, other scientists and farmers, including me, were invited to Kitale, Trans Nzoia County to witness the status of the Bt maize versus conventional maize field trial whose sowing I also witnessed on May 5, 2017. Seeing first-hand the excellent results, I’m hoping that my farm will have access to Bt maize by 2019—and that Kenyan scientists will move to develop excellent varieties that fend off weeds, fight pests, and survive droughts.
Freshly elected to his office, Deputy President Ruto is in a prime position to become a champion of agricultural technology for Kenya. If Kenya moves forward as it should, he may even gain notice as a global figure who understands that openness to innovation can improve food security in the developing world. Best of all, he’s not alone. GMOs need not become a partisan issue in Kenya. Another strong voice for them is Wilber Otichilo, who was just elected governor of Vihiga County. He belongs to Odinga’s opposition coalition and supported GMOs during his career in parliament.
It goes to show that GMOs ultimately are about sound science and economic opportunity rather than political maneuvering—though, as we’ve seen time and again, the adoption and spread of GMOs require the election of enlightened political leaders such as Ruto and Otichilo.
Gilbert arap Bor grows corn (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. Dr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Award recipient and a member of the Global Farmer Network, where this column initially appears (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) .