Kenya has begun a countdown to commercializing genetically modified maize(corn). Scientists at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) have already developed a new maize seed, resistant to the stem borer. Stem borer destroys 400,000 tonnes of Maize in Kenya, alone. In Sub-Saharan Africa, chronic cases of stem borer infestation account for 10-70 per cent of yield losses. This has had devastating effects on Africa's efforts to feed its ever soaring population. Maize is the primary staple food and an occasional cash crop in many parts of Africa.
The first case of stem borer was discovered in Malawi in 1932. Since then, a raft of methods, pointedly, biological control, habitat management and use of natural pesticides, have been used to deal with the stem borer menace. Unfortunately, very little has been achieved. Bounty yields, a common occurrence in countries such as US, Canada, Argentina, India and China, which have embraced biotechnology, have not been forthcoming. For instance, Niger, one of the poorest countries in Africa is currently facing acute food shortage due to crop failure and drought. About 3.6 million people are on the verge of death due to hunger. Horrifying is news that 800,000 children are chronically malnourished.
Niger is a semi-desert country where lack of rain can result to massive crop failures. This situation and others in Africa can be avoided. Dishing emergency food aid, as is happening at the moment, will help in the short run. But long-term measures need to be explored.
The development of seeds with tolerance to drought and low soil fertility through modern biotechnology could benefit Niger and other countries in similar situations.
Maize varieties with improved nutritional content will be a boon to malnourished children who strand the African continent.
It is worth noting that the development of maize seed resistant to pests such as stem borer not only heralds a new chapter in Kenya but Africa as a whole. Other African countries should now borrow a leaf from these two countries. They should swim by the waves rest they continue to be perpetual beneficiaries of relief food.
Kenyan scientists have demonstrated determination to seek homegrown solutions to Africa's food problems. It would be interesting to hear the views of critics of modern biotechnology about this latest development. In the past, they have accused rich countries of foisting novel technologies such as biotechnology on “hapless" Africa, in total disregard of their environmental impact or health complications associated with consumption of genetically modified food.
The jury is now out. To quote Dr Stephen Mugo, a plant breeder with CIMMYT, “The converted seeds have been studied, multiplied and tested in laboratories and greenhouse conditions. "
James Wachai is a communication specialist who uses his expertise to increase public understanding of science and technology, specifically biotechnology. Read more from James at http://www.gmoafrica.org