News Column

Biotech cotton will pull farmers out of poverty

July 25, 2014


Scientists and key politicians have in recent weeks stepped up the gear in their crusade to have the government lift the ban on genetically modified crops. Dr Charles Waturu - the Centre Director of Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), Thika - has been at the heart of a study on biotechnology cotton. He spoke to Julius Sigei.

Do the tonnes of information Kari generates end up boosting the farmers' produce?

Most of the food and horticultural crops you see around are from Kari. The varieties and the technologies have contributed to increased productivity.

The uptake, however, has not been 100 per cent. Look at the cotton we are growing even now. The potential is 2,500kg per hectare yet farmers get between 600 and 800kg. This is because they don't implement the information.

What is the problem?

The problem has been with the extension. We have solved it by creating a department of outreach and partnership within Kari headed by a deputy director. Now the uptake of our research output has improved significantly.

What, exactly, is biotechnology cotton?

BT cotton is a variety genetically engineered for pest resistance, especially against the caterpillar pest known as the African bollworm. It is the most devastating of the cotton pests as it can decimate an entire crop.

In the 1980s the world produced insecticides known as synthetic pyrethroids which were highly efficient, killing all the worms even before you finish spraying. But the bollworm soon developed resistance after farmers misused the pesticide.

They would use under-doses of 10ml per pump instead of the recommended 20ml. The other problem with synthetic pyrethroids is that they killed all natural enemies including those for African bollworms and red spider mites, another cotton pest.

Since the red spider mite was not killed by synthetic pyrethroids, the population would increase and destroy the cotton even as the farmers increasingly sprayed to kill bollworms. This discouraged them from growing cotton.

So how would BT cotton be the solution?

BT is a technology which enables the plant to protect itself. It is specific to the larva of the bollworms and related caterpillars. When the caterpillar bites the plant, it dies. By reducing sprays with insecticides you are also sparing the natural enemies which will help in killing the red spider mite.

It is a superb technology, but we are not pioneering it. US, India, Australia, China, South Africa, Burkina Faso have been growing BT cotton for the last 18 years.

As we debate now whether we should embrace BT or not, India has 12 million hectares under BT cotton. BT significantly reduces the need for pesticides. In Kenya we need up to 12 sprays in some areas to get a good crop.

With BT only about three sprays will be required to control cotton strainers and aphids, the other important cotton pests that are not affected by BT. The cost of up to nine sprays saved goes back to farmers' pockets. Overall, BT reduces the cost of production by between 30 and 60 per cent.

What is the place of cotton in Kenya's economy?

Cotton does well in the semi-arid areas - the whole of lower Eastern, Coast, Nyanza and parts of Western like Busia and Bungoma. Cotton will survive extreme drought situations because of its deep roots. It also has a very wide application.

Apart from the fibre used for making garments, the seed is used to make animal feeds and cooking oil. Often, though, only fibre is considered when paying farmers. The potential for cotton is so huge that Ethiopia's booming industry is textile-based.

But the cheap second-hand clothes which killed the industry in the 1990s have not gone away.

No one is happy to put on a shirt he doesn't know who wore it. BT will solve the cost, quality and quantity issues local factories are facing. We invest a lot in research. We have spent up to Sh15 million on BT cotton alone.

Yet the government now seems to stand in the way of its implementation by refusing to lift the ban on GM.

First of all, that ban is really misplaced as it was based on an erroneous study. The paper (by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini) was done with a purpose. And he succeeded because after its publication many countries came up with moratoriums and bans but most have since lifted them after the study was scientifically discredited.

For the last 18 years other countries have been growing BT crops, we would have been hearing of mass deaths. We are generally wearing clothes made from fabric imported from Chennai, India.

Many universities are now training students in biotechnology. Where will all these graduates go if this ban persists? The ban was also made when the debate on cancer in the country was rife. It was an emotional decision rather than a scientific one.

But a taskforce was appointed to relook at the matter. What became of it?

The taskforce only managed to stoke a war between the medical scientists and the agricultural scientists. Medical scientists are fighting to carry out tests on agricultural biotechnology products so they can have work. But there is also hypocrisy. Look at insulin, a product of genetic engineering, which is now used by diabetics.

Nobody is talking about it yet it is going into the blood directly whereas GM foods are processed during digestion before being absorbed. Scientists do very good papers as experts in their fields but at a certain point everyone becomes an expert. When Argentina introduced GM soy beans, Brazil imposed a social moratorium on it.

By the time it was lifting the ban, 30 per cent of its farmers were already growing GM soy beans because they had earlier sneaked the legume through the border.

This will happen to Kenya if Uganda or Tanzania allows BT cotton first. The good news is that key politicians including the Deputy President, governors and the parliamentary committee on agriculture are now piling pressure to lift the ban unconditionally.

With knowledge of the technology, Kenyans will eventually accept BT but after wasting a lot of time. The government spends a fortune of taxpayer's money to educate scientists. I joined Kari with only a BSc. Then I went to some of the best universities in the world.

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: Nation (Kenya)

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