Bid to revive ailing cotton industry with GMO variety

Research on the new variety is in the final stages and is expected to be completed in February next year, with tests indicating the genetically modified type is resistant to the destructive African Bollworm which claims up to 100 per cent of harvests if no pesticides are applied.
The new type, known as Bt cotton will minimise farmers’ losses and help them save up Sh70,000 an acre, which farmers would ordinarily use in applying pesticides. Its introduction will be the culmination of five years of research by scientists at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Thika. According to one of the researchers, Dr Charles Waturu, the Bt cotton requires only three applications of pesticides compared to the conventional cotton that require at least 12 sprays to fight off pests. He says the country’s adoption of the GMO variety was part of the government’s efforts to jump-start the ailing cotton industry which has been brought to its knees by among other factors, high cost of production.

“Farmers will not only save money but…”
At its prime, the cotton industry rakes in revenue running into hundreds of millions of shillings into the country’s gross domestic product. “Farmers will not only save money but time which can be used for doing other things, indirect savings from reduced chances of poisoning hence less visits to hospitals, higher yields and quality cotton,” he says. The introduction of the new seeds is expected in February next year when full adoption of the GMO technology will take off with the operationalisation of the Biosafety Act. The Biosafety Bill was signed into law by President Kibaki in February and experts are now working on the regulations required for it to become operational. “Plans are at advanced stage to put in place seven regulations that are vital for its operationalisation,” says Dr Waturu.

Research into the new variety
Research into the new variety has included inserting a gene which occurs naturally in soil bacteria, to release toxic proteins that are harmful to the African Bollworm. The gene, Bacillus thuringiensis, produces toxins which are indigestible, making the pests to starve to death. The caterpillars are particularly destructive on cotton plantations and can destroy many acres of cotton within a short time. The conventional type of cotton requires farmers to use a large amount of costly pesticides, which are beyond the reach of the majority of farmers who are impoverished by the poor returns. But it is not harmful to people, birds or other insects that consume it. Scientists say the new variety ensures maximum productivity since it prevents the worms from eating up the bolls that form before the plant matures and which significantly contribute to the overall yields.

Surface water
The researchers say that the Bt cotton also helps farmers to save and contributes to environmental conservation since the excessive use of insecticides contaminates ground and surface water. The new cotton which has been approved by the National Biosafety Committee has been found to be of the same quality with the conventional type. Garment manufacturers and lovers of cotton fabrics have also been assured of the same quality and safety. Other products derived from cotton such as oil and seed cake, used as animal feed have also passed the safety mark. Kenya is set to adopt Bollgards II, which is an improvement from Bollgard I, a first generation genetically engineered cotton introduced in 1996 by US company Monsanto.

The second generation GMO cotton
The second generation GMO cotton is already being cultivated in USA, China, India, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Columbia, South Africa and Burkina Faso, comprising about 11 per cent of all the genetically modified crops around the world. Dr Waturu says tests are under way to establish whether genes contained in the GMO cotton can be transferred to largely wild cotton which grows in parts of coast province. But the country’s quest to adopt the GMO has not been without challenges.

Low prices
Anti GMO crusaders backed by pesticides manufacturers who are set to lose a big chunk of their market through the introduction of the new variety, have strongly opposed its adoption. “They are aware that their sales will plummet and have been at the forefront fighting the new technology,” says Dr Waturu. He says farmers are also reluctant to adapt the genetically modified seeds fearing any associated side effects but an initiative dubbed BioAware launched by Agriculture minister William Ruto last year is tasked with enlighten farmers on the new technology. The industry is also faced with poor marketing and low prices for farmers which may water down any gains from the Bt cotton. Apart from purchasing the seeds which are more costly that the conventional ones, farmers will still need to access inputs such as fertilizers and insecticides to be assured of higher yields. 

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