Kenya looses on Bt cotton fortunes as peers rake millions

As the world embraces Bt cotton for its superior traits in fighting the voracious Bollworm pest which is responsible for wiping up to 100 percent yields, Kenya trails its regional and international peers as 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 lead the onslaught.

Yet Kenya’s cotton industry remains a pale shadow of its former self. A crop that turned farmers into overnight millionaires in the 1980’s and contributed immensely to the national purse has since the 90’s taken a nosedive for among other reasons pest attacks.

From 70,000 bales of cotton produced in the year 1985/86 to a dismal 20,000 bales in 2001 there has been no let up in the sector’s hemorrhage. And the drop has continued unabated. According to the Ministry of Industrialization, the country only produces 11,000 metric tonnes of cotton annually against a national lint demand of 111,000 metric tonnes. The deficit is normally supplemented with imports from Uganda and Tanzania.

Kenya has identified cotton as a key crop that could help it achieve its economic blueprint Vision 2030. This, due to the pent up demand by garment manufacturers in and out of Kenya and a concomitant appetite for cotton by products especially by the feed manufacturers.

And with about 87 percent of Kenya being Arid and Semi Arid receiving low rainfall and home to about 27 percent of Kenya’s population, crops like cotton that can withstand harsh climatic conditions would be the ultimate silver bullet among dwellers of these regions.

But cotton’s biggest drawback is a voracious pest dubbed African Bollworm which can wipe entire crop in days. And with the pest developing resistance against conventional pesticides, farmers have spent a fortune trying to contain it to no avail.

One man however, aware of the transformatory role cotton farming has on households’ incomes and the economy has made it his vocation to advocate for the adoption of the more superior biotechnology cotton that fights the pest without the need for the synthetic fertilizers while increasing yield per unit area. Meet Dr. Charles Waturu Kenya’s principal Bt cotton researcher and the Director of the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI) Kandara, of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KARLO).

In a decade long journey of passion, dedication and service to the country, Dr. Waturu has, since 2003 been actively involved in research and lobbying for the adoption and commercialization of the Bt Cotton. “Politics aside, if people actually saw the transformatory role that Bt Cotton is playing in other countries who have adopted it, we would not be second guessing. Our regional peers like Burkina Faso and Sudan are miles ahead because they realized the unrivaled potential of this type of cotton,” Dr. Waturu said.

Burkina Faso for example has about 69 percent of its cotton production being Bt which occupies 0.47 hectares of all national land. Sudan on the other hand has 89 percent of all cotton produced being Bt. And the results have been obvious. Sanu Subiri a smallholder farmer in Burkina Faso who has embraced the Bt Cotton having planted it in his three hectares of land has improved yields from 400 kgs per hectare to at least one tonne per hectare. However, scientists have been able to achieve two tonnes per ha.

So what makes the Bt cotton so unique and superior?

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 from soil bacteria called 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. According to Dr. Waturu, over 30 per cent of the total cotton production costs goes towards pest control. Bt cotton requires only about three applications of pesticides compared to the conventional cotton that require at least 12 sprays to fight off pests.

But it is not harmful to people, birds or other insects that consume it. According to Dr. Waturu, 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.

Dr. Waturu further says 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. “If you look at the direct effects and the other effects that come with this you realize why it matters. Farmers besides saving money also save 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 said.

Although Bt cotton field trials have been completed the country cannot go ahead with commercialization unless the ban imposed on imports of GMOs is lifted and it is made clear the direction the country is taking with regards to GMOs.

The perceived unconducive biotechnology environment in Kenya has lead biotechnology companies into shifting focus to West and Southern Africa. Multinationals and biotechnology companies like Monsanto who have been working with local GMO research institutions providing funding and expertise have pulled out following the government’s blanket ban on genetically modified products. It is really heartbreaking to see all these golden opportunities for our country

slipping away just like that. We had completed the laboratory and field trials for Bt cotton and even submitted the report to the National Biosafety Authority as required by law. In fact, the NBA was impressed with our findings,” said Dr. Waturu. Monsanto, which invested in the Bt cotton study, cancelled the introduction of the technology pending the government’s decision on the crop.

Kenya had planned to emulate Columbia, which raised its farmers’ incomes and cotton yields after adapting Bt cotton. The South American country is now one of the leading producers of Bt cotton in the world.

“If we are talking about food security, decent lives for all and a mid level economy, then we need to think of new age technologies especially in food production. We are a credited research institution and we have done numerous tests on biotech cotton. It is one of the crops that will increase the incomes of our people and boost our economy. That is the truth that Kenyans need to know and it comes from scientists who have invested time and resources to test the safety of these crops. Bt cotton is safe,” concluded Dr. Waturu who hoped the roadblocks would be cleared soon for Kenya to start enjoying the benefits of the superior variety as her peers are.