In Summary
  • Bt technology has been used to mitigate effects of pests and diseases, drought stress and other challenges facing farmers globally with broader advantage of reduced production costs, improved crop quality and environmental protection from use of excessive pesticides through chemical sprays.
  • If Bt cotton will be released in Kenya and adopted for commercial production in 2019/2020, it will have taken us 18 years to set up appropriate bio-safety legislations, conduct confined field trials (CFTs) and NPTs.
  • Lesser technologically developed countries like Burkina Faso and Sudan are among the four African countries producing Bt cotton.
  • When current Bt varieties are released in Kenya, similar increase in acreage is expected. Farm labour allocated to spraying is expected to reduce significantly.

The first results of the national performance trials (NPT) of genetically modified (GM) cotton done by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) in partnership with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), universities and several scientists, which are due this year, are eagerly awaited by stakeholders in the texture industry.

The performance trial was done after an environmental release approval by the National Bio-safety Authority (NBA) in 2016, based on Environmental Impact Assessment clearance certificate and licence for open field trials issued in 2018.

The progress is a major breakthrough for Kenya, which lags behind other African countries in deployment of Bt technology despite enormous knowledge in plant breeding for insect-resistance cotton and many crops including maize.

Bt technology has been used to mitigate effects of pests and diseases, drought stress and other challenges facing farmers globally with broader advantage of reduced production costs, improved crop quality and environmental protection from use of excessive pesticides through chemical sprays.

Comparative analysis of Kenya and peer countries

Kenya and South Africa initiated GM crops’ research and trials almost simultaneously (Kenya in 2001, South Africa 1998), but the latter has become the first country in Africa to release its first commercial GM crop — insect-resistant (Bollgard II cotton) — that was subsequently adopted for commercial production four years later in 2002.

Surprisingly, the adoption rapidly expanded following the first commercial release, and by 2001-2002, it was estimated that approximately 90 per cent of farmers were growing Bt cotton and now it is 100 per cent Bt seed.

If Bt cotton will be released in Kenya and adopted for commercial production in 2019/2020, it will have taken us 18 years to set up appropriate bio-safety legislations, conduct confined field trials (CFTs) and NPTs.

This is comparatively a very slow pace of regulation and technology adoption.

India accounts for the largest area of Bt cotton in the world, with more than 10 million hectares planted in 2016.

Lesser technologically developed countries like Burkina Faso and Sudan are among the four African countries producing Bt cotton.

Non-existent bio-safety risks

Several health and bio-safety concerns raised by Kenyans over the years, including threats to life, could have been more serious in India where seven million farmers have been growing GM cotton on 12 million hectares, (approximately a quarter of cotton demand globally) throughout the country since it was introduced 16 years ago, according to published data.

In Philippines, 80 per cent of Filipino yellow corn farmers are planting biotech maize, which is currently under ban in Kenya.

Socio-economic and environmental merits of using Bt cotton

It is highly expected that adoption and commercialisation of Bt cotton will revitalise the textile industry and by extension contribute to the revival of the cotton sector and create up to 600,000 jobs on farms and apparel factories.

Bt cotton has a potential to produce 260,000 bales of cotton per hectare annually as compared to none Bt varieties, which stand at 28,000-30,000 bales, translating to about 572kg/hectare against a potential of 2,500kg/hectare.

In Australia, cotton production area increased by 89 per cent after introduction of Bt cotton variety (BollgardIII/RR Flex cotton), which was adopted by many farmers.

When current Bt varieties are released in Kenya, similar increase in acreage is expected. Farm labour allocated to spraying is expected to reduce significantly.

Threats to Bt technology

The greatest threat to Bt crop varieties is the ability of insects to adapt to bio-insecticides synthesised by Bt crop. This may eventually lead to the development of resistance to Bt toxins by the insects, which is a genetically based decrease in the frequency of individuals susceptible to the toxin in a population that has been previously exposed to them.

STRATEGIES TO MINIMISE RESISTANCE

a) Use of refuge crops
The key strategy to the delay in the emergence of insect resistance is planting of conventional (non-GM) cotton in or near Bt cotton fields, or the planting of other suitable crops that ensure that there are available refuge crops to promote the survival of susceptible insects.

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