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December 8, 2022
Agribusiness Featured

Are Kenya’s cotton farmers being sacrificed in war against GMOs?

It is harvest time in Kenya, and Joseph Thika has had to hire workers to help him harvest his cotton crop. Joseph is happy that his genetically modified plants matured faster this year, compared to the variety he used in the past. Kenya is counting on this solution to revive its struggling textile industry.

Thika is one of the many cotton farmers living in Kibibi Kirinyaga county, some 250 kilometers north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

According to Thika, farmers like himself have now started reaping big rewards, thanks to the introduction of genetically modified cotton, boosting the local textile industry.

The Bt cotton variety they are using is a genetically modified pest resistant plant which naturally produces an insecticide to combat bollworm, a pest which destroys cotton plants.

The initials Bt stand for Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil-dwelling bacterium which is fatal to bollworm larvae.

“We started planting this variety last year and we find it more beneficial than the old one. This one takes 4 to 5 months to mature, compared to the previous one that took 9 months. The yields are also very high,” says Thika.

Kenya typically grows two cotton varieties, HART 89M and KSA 81M, both of which produce low yields, leading to farmers incurring losses.

Thika says he ventured into the new variety after receiving training from state agriculture officers.

800 kilos every three months

Evans Ngure lives a few kilometers from Thika’s farm. Ngure is a well-known cotton farmer in Nyangate village. According to Ngure, he harvests 800 kilos of ginned cotton from his single-hectare farm every three months.

“I used to harvest about 300 kilos but, with the current variety, I can harvest 800 kilos at a go. So far there are about 10 farmers in the area who have ventured into the new variety,” Ngure says, adding that they are waiting for the Bt cotton seeds to be brought in so that, when the rains start in October, they will be ready for planting.

Johnson Mwai, another farmer from Mwea East, tells RFI’s Africa Calling Podcast that since he started growing cotton in 1967, he has never had big yields, until the arrival of Bt cotton.

Mwai says he stopped planting other crops like maize and beans two years ago because of harsh weather conditions, and now focuses on Bt cotton.

“Each sack is 35 kgs and you can harvest 100 sacks and with a kilogram trading for about 55 shillings, you get a lot of money per hectare compared to the old variety.

Mwai also says that life has become a bit easier as he has managed to pay school fees for his children and resolve other issues using the earnings.

Championing research

Organisations such as the International Service for Acquisition of Agribiotech, the Alliance for Science, and the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organisation have been championing research into genetically modified cotton for the past two years.

Daniel Magondu, a leading Bt cotton farmer and the chairman of the Society for Biotechnology Farming of Kenya says farmers are grateful to the government for providing free seeds, a move that is attracting farmers to revive the crop.

“Farmers who are willing to plant go to the Ministry of Agriculture with their Identification card, they get the amount of seed they want to plant in their hectarage. After planting, the ginners are connected to farmers so they come and get the seed cotton from buying centres where they pay farmers on delivery.”

It is estimated that, 30 years ago, there were 50,000 cotton farmers in Kenya, producing 40,000 bales of the HART 89M cotton annually.

The industry gradually collapsed due to diseases, poor weather conditions and the importation of second-hand garments from the United States.

Magondu has asked the government to distribute Bt cotton to other areas to revive the ginnery industry which had lost its former glory. He points out that growing Bt cotton also helps farmers to battle the effects of climate change.

“Cotton is a drought tolerant crop. It cannot leave you with nothing like the way we are seeing it in our maize fields and other fields where we have nothing to harvest. But in the cotton fields we get at least something to buy food for our families,’’ observes Magondu.

Opposition and contamination

Organic agriculture lobby groups are, however, against the move to introduce genetically modified plants in Kenya, saying that there’s possibility of contamination of seeds.

According to Eustace Kiarie, chief executive officer at Kenya Organic Agriculture Network, the yield from genetically modified cotton, though initially high, tends to fail over time.

“We have seen in countries like Canada where farmers who have grown organic maize have been contaminated by Bt maize from neighbours, and these organic farmers are taken to court for using a technology that they have not paid for. So there are many issues that we need to consider even before the full rollout of this Bt cotton.”

The lobby group says that more research is needed on such crops, adding that Kenya should maintain the ban imposed in 2012 on the use of genetically modified crops until their safety is confirmed.

Long-term failure of GM crops

According to Kiarie, the same technology has failed in other African countries, leading to a huge loss of money.

In Burkina Faso, he says, “they started planting and commercialising Bt cotton in 2008 and seven years later they had to abandon planting this crop, and the reason was that the cotton they were getting when it was taken to the ginnery, the threads were very short and the quality was very low,” says Kiarie.

It is estimated that Burkina Faso lost around $27,000 because of the low quality of seeds. If Kenya is to learn from Burkina Faso, it should be cautious about adopting this technology.

In 2006, the African Union adopted a resolution stating that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were not welcome on the continent. It did not take long before the resolution was shredded after it became apparent that GMOs have the potential to redefine agriculture.

Despite official concerns, the African continent is slowly becoming the next frontier for GM technology.

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