By Dr. Gilbert Arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
We’ve been told by trusted media and researchers that Kenya is on the brink of accepting biotechnology in agriculture. I’ve said it myself. And now, President Kenyatta appears to be saying the same. Business Daily recently reported “President Uhuru Kenyatta is betting on mass production of genetically modified cotton to create 50,000 jobs.”
Another recent report, this one by the Africa Center for Biosciences International (CABI) affirms that “agriculture is essential for sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth and yet average crop yields in Africa are among the lowest in the world. Over 80% rely on it but many face challenges in growing sufficient good quality produce”.
True, farmers know that some years are good and some years are bad.
With the rains that arrived rather early this year, I, like many other Kenyan farmers, have started the exercise of planting maize on my small farm in Kapseret, Uasin Gishu County. This time, I am looking forward to a better year than the nightmarish 2017, when I suffered through what may be the worst year of my life in agriculture. That’s how I’ll remember 2017.
On my land in western Kenya, everything went wrong. First, after planting in the last week of March, a dry spell struck our region. My crops failed to germinate, and I had to replant in the middle of April. Even then, they struggled to sprout and grow.
News reports described the ordeal as the worst drought in East Africa in six decades. It was certainly the worst I’d ever witnessed.
Then came the pests. The armyworms—moth larvae that attack with military ferocity—feasted on my maize. I tried to control these bugs with insecticides supplied by my County Government, but their numbers overwhelmed me. Because of their relentless assault, I lost more than half of my crop.
If nothing else had gone wrong, the horrible drought of the planting season and the armyworm infestation that followed would have made 2017 a terrible year for farming.
Then things went from bad to worse. Pounding rains in September and October washed out more of my crops. By harvest time, almost nothing was left; most of what was left to be harvested was damaged by the rain.
Farmers rarely suffer alone: Other growers in my area shared my sorry fate. When Kenya’s breadbasket doesn’t produce, people go hungry. They hurt in other ways as well. I’m convinced that my country’s recent political turmoil, with its violent protests and cancelled presidential election, was due at least in part to food insecurity.
It makes me wonder: Did things have to be this way?
If Kenya had adopted GMO technologies years ago, when it first had the chance, we probably would have cut our losses. Crops with drought-resistant traits might have survived the dry spell. Crops with pest resistance might have fought off the armyworms. Crops with flood resistance might have lived through the drenching rains.
Everything might have been a little better.
Unfortunately, our government has procrastinated in commercializing the products that farmers in many other countries take for granted. In North and South America, farmers have planted billions and billions of acres of GMO seeds. Farmers in African countries such as Burkina Faso and South Africa also use GMOs. For them, GMOs are ordinary and conventional—and I envy what they have.
I can’t help but think GMO seeds would have helped Kenya meet its food-security challenges in 2017. Now we are faced with a looming famine; many parts of the country have been reported to be hit by food shortages.
I’ll be the first to admit that GMOs alone are no salvation. Technology can’t defeat Mother Nature: Some years are just bad for farming. Yet GMOs have the potential to make the worst seasons a little less awful and to turn good seasons into great ones, especially as we grapple with climate change and other problems.
Kenya’s biosafety regulators are finally planning to let us take an important step forward in 2018, as they allow open-field trials of maize by KALRO and AATF in Kitale, not far from where I live. If these succeed, we may enjoy commercialization of GMO maize seeds by 2019. GMO cotton is also on the cards!
Better late than never—but then again, this innovation can’t come soon enough. When Kenyan farmers enjoy access to GMO seeds, our nation’s food security will improve almost immediately. It won’t solve all of our difficulties in agriculture, such as poor roads and limited access to credit, but it will help us do a better job of feeding our people.
We also need to keep up with farmers in neighboring Uganda, whose parliament in October approved the adoption of GMOs. This enlightened decision will give Ugandan farmers the means to resist banana wilt, a deadly bacterial disease that afflicts a staple crop. (To understand the problem, plus the potential of biotechnology to solve it, see “Food Evolution,” an excellent new documentary film that includes footage from Uganda, South Africa, and elsewhere.) As the Genetic Literacy Project opines, we need crops that are genetically improved to withstand climate change, low water availability, rising soil salinity, and pathogen and insect attacks.
Kenyans trade extensively with Ugandans, and my farm is in fact closer to the border than it is to Nairobi, my country’s economic and political center. As Ugandans adopt GMOs, we’ll see Ugandan food products flood our markets: bananas, maize, rice, sorghum, cassava, sugar, and more.
That’s a good thing because trade has the power to improve everyone’s situation. Hungry people don’t care where their food is grown. After all, newspaper reports have it that Kenya plans to import Kes.6.6 million worth of maize from Uganda. Yet we also want our own farmers to compete—and to export Kenyan food to Uganda and elsewhere. This is good economics. It’s also good food security for ourselves and others.
Success will require access to the latest technologies. Right now, we’re a few steps behind Uganda, let alone so much of the developed world. We need to catch up.
If and when we do, farmers will continue to have good years and bad years—but maybe the worst ones won’t be as difficult as 2017; Maybe the 2018 season has begun on a good footing: President Kenyatta’s banking on Bt. cotton to drive his Big 4 agenda and the more than adequate rains.
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 (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).