By Dr. Gilbert Arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
Just as cooking a good meal takes the right ingredients, Kenya’s “Big Four Agenda” needs the right ingredients of advanced science and technology, led by GMO seed technology.
Announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta more than a year ago, the ambitious program promises universal health coverage, affordable housing, enhanced manufacturing, and food security by 2022.
Kenyatta has staked his legacy on achieving these goals. “This is his chance to really leave his mark on the country,” Anne Kirima-Muchoki, Chairwoman of the Kenyan Investment Authority told the Financial Times last summer. She added that she has “never seen a president more determined to deliver.”
Delivering on at least two of the Big Four Agenda’s goals—food security and manufacturing—will require Kenyatta’s government to embrace agricultural biotechnology. For quite a while, it has appeared ready to do so, reversing years of resistance and delay that have caused Kenya to fall behind much of the rest of the world.
Now it must take the final steps, allowing farmers like me to plant GMO crops. As a small-scale farmer who grows maize, fodder and vegetables and raises cows on 25 acres in Usain Gishu County, one of Kenya’s breadbasket counties, I’m convinced that anything less than the full commercialization of GMOs will guarantee the failure of the Big Four Agenda.
The food security portion of the Big Four Agenda includes many parts, such as legislation on warehousing and fish farming. At its heart, however, is a simple promise to grow more food.
Almost every Kenyan relies on maize as a staple food. We pack our maize into 90 kg bags, and last year we generated 40 million of them. By 2022, we’re supposed to boost our production to 67 million bags.
That’s an increase of roughly two-thirds—and it’s going to take a lot more than ideal weather. It’s going to take new technology, and that means the complete acceptance of GMOs as an ordinary form of agriculture.
GMOs came on the world market in 1996, almost an entire generation ago. Many developed countries adopted them immediately. Farmers in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere watched their productivity soar as they grew more food on less land.
In 2017, farmers in 24 countries grew GMOs on nearly 200 million hectares of land. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which tracks the use of GMOs, calls this the fastest adoption of crop technology in history.
Farmers choose GMO seeds because they produce excellent crops that possess a natural ability to defeat weeds, pests, and other challenges.
Yet Kenya, like most African countries, hasn’t allowed this. Is it any wonder that we’ve fallen so far behind the rest of the world in food production, even to the extent that in the 2017 /18 season, the government had to allow duty-free importation of the grain from as far away as Mexico?
The good news about falling behind is that we can catch up. We have lots of room for improvement—and the acceptance of GMO seeds is the single most important decision our government can make if it wants to meet its food-security goals. In time, GMOs will help us grow not only maize but also rice and potatoes, two other crops that can do better.
GMO seeds will help with another item on the Big Four Agenda too: manufacturing.
The specific goals involve the textile industry, with the hope of increasing its value from $350 million to $2 billion by 2022, including the addition of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Before any of this can happen, Kenyan farmers will have to start growing a lot more cotton. The best way to make this happen is to allow access to GMO cotton seeds. Just listen to Kenyan farmers talk about the advantages of it in this video.
Kenya is currently on track to adopt a GMO known as “Bt cotton” in 2019. Once that happens, we’ll see a cotton boom, with farmers cultivating perhaps 200,000 hectares of this crop, which fend off the worst pests. We’ll have a lot more cotton, and this will fuel our textile sector.
GMO seeds won’t by themselves solve all of our agricultural problems. Roads still need improving, banks must become more farmer-friendly, irrigation must expand rapidly, and markets must be opened locally and internationally.
Yet I can guarantee that only with GMO seeds, this essential ingredient to progress, will President Kenyatta meet the goals he has set for all of us in the Big Four Agenda.
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 and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Kenyan Fish Marketing Authority. Dr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Award recipient and a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column originates.