By MARY HEARTY

Kenya is likely to start growing genetically modified cotton on commercial basis next year. The country will become the first in East Africa to grow Bt-cotton in open fields, and fourth in Africa after South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

The launch for commercialization is expected in January 2019, while farmers are likely to plant their first Bt-cotton seeds in March. The development follows the recent approval for national performance trials for Bt cotton by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

Already, the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) has planted the first Bt-cotton in open fields for environmental testing in Kibos, Kisumu in the west of the country.

It has a potential to produce 260,000 bales of cotton annually but currently, its production stands at 28,000, as it gets about 572kg/hectare against a potential of 2,500kg/hectare.

While agriculture is the main source of livelihood of people in Kenya, directly supplying food, creating jobs, availing raw materials for industrialization or value addition, crop production has been on decline owing to various challenges.

Key among them are pests and diseases, high cost of inputs and lack of improved planting materials. Other challenges include decline in soil fertility, week research-extension-farmer linkage and poor market pricing.

The poor crop production has led to dismal raw materials for processing industry such as cotton ginneries leading to reduced operations and closure.

For cotton farming, the main challenge is pest manifestation. Farmers have been growing unadventurously bred cotton, which is vulnerable to a host of sucking and chewing insects, key among them cotton ball worm.

This challenge can now be addressed by planting Bt-cotton, which is genetically modified to be resistant to bollworm.

Bt-cotton, according to Researchers at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) is any variety of cotton, genetically enhanced with Bt-genes to protect it against caterpillar pests, especially the African bollworm

Bt-cotton successfully repels the boll weevil larvae, one of the principal predators of cotton, and all other larval insects trying to take a bite out of the cotton plant, eliminating the necessity for pesticide applications.

According to KALRO’s Dr Charles Nderitu, Bt-cotton reduces use of insecticides from three to 12 sprays per season hence lowering the cost of production, enhancing populations of natural insect enemies such as ladybirds while allowing beneficial insects like bees and butterflies to flourish in the cotton crop and also increase the productivity of honey. “Further, it minimizes human and animal exposure to toxic insecticides,” he added.

 Bt-cotton farming is likely to change the cotton productivity by increasing the number of bales of cotton produced annually. Revival of the cotton sector is expected to move GDP from 9 per cent to 15 per cent and contribute to government priorities.

Countries that have embraced biotech crops like South Africa are more food secure and have a thriving economy. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation also urges other African countries to embrace Agri-biotechnology in order to combat poverty and food insecurity.

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