High BT maize yields impress Kenyan farmers

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By Verenardo Meeme, March 3, 2021


Kenyan farmers, impressed by the high yields realized in GMO open field trials, are urging the government to speed up the process of allowing them to access Bt maize.

The excited farmers say the bountiful returns from the Bt maize reminds them of decades long gone when their parents and grandparents used to harvest large amounts of the crop from their fields.

Speaking during a visit to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) National Performance Trial (NPTs) site in Thika, Murang’a County, part of the TELA maize project during an exposure learning tour last week, the farmers expressed their great interest in trying the Bt maize. 

The NPTs were planted in October last year and the Thika site demonstrates the performance of Bt maize candidates in comparison with conventional non-Bt and commercial varieties. 

The TELA maize project builds on progress made from a decade of breeding work under the Water Efficient maize for Africa (WEMA) project. TELA is derived from the Latin word tutela, which means protection or shield. The WEMA project also developed non-GM drought-tolerant hybrid varieties of maize. KALRO is the lead agency on the project in Kenya.

Njeri Kinuthia, a 60-year-old mother of four and a maize farmer in Muranga County who was one of the farmers who visited the site declared during the tour: 

Njeri Kinuthia looks at Bt maize

 

‘‘When my maize is good, it makes me feel joy. I have learnt that, with my small one acre of land, I can plant maize for my domestic consumption and get a surplus to sell. What has been stopping us is the lack of knowledge that there exists a maize variety that slows our challenges. With technology, we can produce more maize and find surplus.’’ 

Njeri explains that the scientists’ description of how Bt maize is developed from soil-dwelling bacteria corroborates with local farmers’ indigenous knowledge of using the soil to tame stem borers.

‘‘My eyes are now open. Initially, I used to hear about GMOs on the radio, but today I have seen real GMOs. I will reach out to more farmers to tell them what I have learnt. I thought GMOs are chemicals that harm people, but today I have seen it is a crop just like any other,’’ Njeri tells Alliance for Science.  

‘‘I thought that GMOs are imported from far away, sealed in a paper with some labels on it. But today, I am surprised to see that GMOs can grow in our own soil just like any other maize. What is GM in maize that has grown in our soil?’’ she asks.

Jane Wambui, another farmer in Kiambu County who was among the farmers in the Thika KALRO NPTs exposure learning describes Bt maize as “smart, healthy, with strong stems, good yields, and with ears that do not open up quickly to allow toxins such as aflatoxins to spread in the maize.”

Farmer Jane Wambui holds Bt maize at Thika KALRO test plot

 ‘‘I could not afford chemicals, which are so expensive and often result in more losses, so I used ash and soil to tame pests. Thankfully, today I have seen that with Bt maize, I do not need to use chemicals. I am anxious for the government to allow us to cultivate the crop.’’ 

Wambui recalls her experiences from poor yields. ‘‘We are told to put at least three seeds in one hole so that in case some fail, we may be lucky that one may yield something.’’ 

John Kamau from Muranga County says: ‘‘I have seen today that when I will be able to plant Bt maize, it will improve my yields and help me fight pests and diseases.’’ With enough beans and maize, we cannot go hungry, again, and it will also be easier to sell the crop.”

Farmer John Kamau enjoys Bt maize at Thika KALRO test plot

James Karanja, the principal investigator of the TELA maize project, says the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) is already collecting and analysing the data before making recommendations based on the efficacy of the technology in comparison to the non-Bt and commercial varieties.

KEPHIS will then recommend the variety for commercialization before the Kenya National Biosafety Authority (NBA) grants commercial approval and issues a license allowing seed companies to distribute seeds to farmers. 

NPTs will be harvested in March for KEPHIS to present a report in April. ‘Farmers should be able to access the seed by August’, says Karanja.  

KALRO Senior Principal Research Scientist Dr Murenga Mwimali says in confined field trials, restrictions such as wearing lab coats, gumboots and disinfecting liquids make farmers feel uncomfortable. However, with limited release across the country, the trials are not only in open spaces but also within communities at KALRO centres, making farmers speed up demand.

‘‘I have observed that farmers are always packed around Bt maize varieties. This is quite encouraging. The government should give farmers a chance to use the tech to protect their yields from losses from stem borers and fall armyworm,’’ Mwimali says. 

“As they see the maize, they want the seed like yesterday. Farmers are very ready. The solution is already here with us.” 

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