NAIROBI, Kenya (PAMACC News) - Farming of genetically modified crops remain a controversial and emotive issue in many countries across the world. But how important is this technology to smallholder farmers particularly in developing societies?
Generally, genetic engineering is done in agriculture to increase crop yields, reduce costs for food or drug production, reduce need for pesticides, enhance nutrient composition and food quality, enhance resistance to pests and disease, increase food security, and for medical benefits to the world's growing population.
To produce a GM plant, new DNA (hereditary material) with desired traits is transferred into plant cells. The cells are then grown into plants in a laboratory setup using tissue culture technology. The seeds produced by these plants will then inherit the newly altered DNA, which gives it a completely new genetic makeup that is different from the original material.
Though Kenya is targeting different types of GMOs and for different crops with different traits, the most important crop at the moment is the GM maize. On this front, Kenya has been researching on genetically modified maize varieties whose seeds contain an organic pesticide known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
According to scientists, Bt bacteria, which naturally dwells in the soil, makes proteins that are toxic to some insects when eaten. So far, the pesticide has not been proven to be harmful to humans. Bt toxin have therefore been introduced into the maize seeds to make the resulting crop self protective to pests and insects, particularly the stem borer.
Elsewhere, in America for example, where farmers grow maize on thousands of acres, scientists have used a different DNA (not the Bt) to develop genetically modifies maize varieties that are tolerant to a herbicide known as roundup. Instead of weeding, the field is sprayed with the herbicide from above, and as a result, the herbicide will kill all other crops/weeds on the field apart from the GM maize.
However in Kenya, those opposed to the GM technology have expressed concerns about the Bt type used on the existing varieties. “I agree that Bt is a naturally occurring bio-pesticide, but it is important to note that the Bt being used in Kenya is synthetic, and not natural,” pointed out Ann Maina, the National Coordinator for the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA Kenya).
Elsewhere, according to a 2012 study published by the United States National Library of Medicine, technologies for genetically modifying foods offer dramatic promise for meeting some areas of greatest challenge for the 21st century.
However, reads part of the article, “Like all new technologies, they also pose some risks, both known and unknown.”
In many countries, controversies and public concern surrounding GM foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labelling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction and environmental conservation.
The American study points out that that there is need for novel methods and concepts to probe into the compositional, nutritional, toxicological and metabolic differences between GM and conventional crops and into the safety of the genetic techniques used in developing GM crops in order to put the technology on a proper scientific foundation and allay the fears of the general public.
Many developed societies are yet to commercialise GMOs in their countries because they feel that genetic engineering is still a relatively new practice, which means the long-term effects on safety are not yet clear. Even in Africa, GMO crops have been commercialised in only for countries, thus, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Egypt and Sudan. Kenya comes in as the fifth country.
So far, researches are ongoing to find out if there are any health implications of genetically engineered foods on human health, immune system and resistance to antibiotics.
According to the UN World Health Organisation (WHO), there are concerns about the capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations such as Open Pollinated Varieties (OPV) of maize.
The WHO further expresses concerns about the persistence of the gene after the GMO have been harvested, and that there are chances that the gene products may kill non-target organisms such as important insects that are not pests. It further points out that the genes may lead to the reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity, and may lead to increased use of chemicals in agriculture.
However, according to the WHO, the environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions.
The place of GMO among smallholders
According to the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), smallholder farmers produce up to 70 percent of Africa's food supply and an estimated 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa together. Yet, these farmers have very little access to farm inputs such as fertilisers, which must be used when growing genetically modified crops.
In that respect, Prof Magnus Jirström of Lund University in Sweden observes that African smallholder farmers have a long way to go in order to adhere to proper agronomic practices required for such crops.
“It is important to note that in Sub-Saharan Africa region, farmers apply about eight kilogrammes of fertilisers per hectare of maize crop per year, which is actually nine percent of the global average,” he said in an exclusive interview.
According to Hon. Dr Wilbur Ottichilo, the Governor Vihiga County and a climate change enthusiast, most farmers in his region insist on growing hybrid maize (mostly without or with very little fertilisers) during long rain seasons, and results have always been disappointing.
However, they have always fallen back to the OPVs, which are farmer saved seeds during short rain season. (The OPVs can still produce without synthetic fertilisers and can tolerate tough climatic conditions.)
“Smallholder farmers need to understand that maize farming is not part of their portion,” said Dr Ottichilo in an interview. “In Vihiga, we are encouraging all farmers to consider investing their energy in producing African Leafy Vegetables which give quick and substantial income compared to the usual maize crop,” said the Governor.
The future of smallholders in Kenya
According to Dr Samuel Onyango Omondi from the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nairobi, the magic bullet for small and medium scale farmers in Kenya is water for irrigation.
“Most farmers especially in Ukambani and many other dry parts of the country are suffering simply because they do not have access to water for irrigation and even for domestic use,” said the University don, noting that the government needs to invest in such projects in order to reduce or end hunger and starvation in the country.
This resonates well with a movement known as Operation Mwolyo (food aid) Out (OMO), which has seen farmers in Yatta, Kitui County become food sufficient in the past 10 years. Through the movement, farmer groups helped each other to sink water pans in every homestead through which they harvest surface runoff rainwater whenever it rains.
“In this area, we can stay for years before it rains. But when it rains, it pours,” said Bishop Dr Samuel Masika, the Founder – Christian Impact Missions which spearheaded the movement. “As a result, our farmers have been able to harvest enough water to sustain their horticultural production for longer periods of time,” he said.
Other experts believe that investment in groundwater will solve the water problem for Kenyans in arid and semi arid areas.
According to Prof Richard Taylor, the principal investigator of behavioural patterns of groundwater in Makutapora wellfields in Tanzania, and a professor of Hydrogeology at the University College London (UCL), there is need to study and understand the renewability of groundwater aquifers, their geography and their sizes. Once this is done, then it can be extracted sustainably for people to use for agricultural production among other uses.
“Studies have shown that climate change will alter the local water balance, but its impact on groundwater recharge is likely to be very location-specific,” he said.
The other option for smallholder farmers is to invest in agroecological practices. According to the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, agroecological principles and practices are feasible adaptation options for the future and stresses related to climate change.
The practice, according to UN FAO is an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems. It seeks to optimise the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.