Kenya moved closer to commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops after the government approved open-air field trials of GM maize, making it the first East African country and the third in Africa to plant the genetically modified crop.
If the field trials are successful, the Bt maize will be approved for cultivation, and sale on the market in the next two years.
The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) granted a conditional approval to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), the developers of the Bt maize, and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) for the environmental release only as a first step towards the commercialisation of Bt maize.
“The authority has granted an approval only for the field trials across the country and collection of data on the maize variety to confirm if it matches that of the confined field trials before the crop can be approved for cultivation by farmers,” said Willy Tonui, NBA chief executive.
KALRO and AATF applied for the environmental release, cultivation and placing on the market of the Bt maize (MON 810) in June last year.
Bt maize is among seven crops that have been under confined field trials at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). The others are Bt cotton, drought-tolerant maize, bio fortified sorghum, viral resistant cassava, nutritionally enhanced cassava and gypsophila paniculata cut flowers.
Among the key things KALRO will have to adhere to before embarking on planting the maize in the selected sites in the country is conducting an environmental impact assessment, to be approved by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), to ensure it complies with existing national laws and policies.
The approval process for environmental release takes 150 days from the time of application and costs $8,500.
Eliud Kiplimo Kireger, the director-general of KALRO, said that apart from its insect resistance, the Bt maize is no different from the conventional maize being planted by farmers.
“Bt maize is an insect resistance maize variety that protects the crop against stem borers and other pests,” said Dr Kereger. “Once the GM variety is commercialised, the battle against the stem borer will have been won, making life easier for farmers who are unable to buy insecticides.”
If approval is granted for its cultivation on farms, maize production is expected to increase by 13 per cent, an equivalent of 400,000 worth about $80 million.
The Bt maize is owned by the US company Monsanto and was first commercialised in the US in 1996. It was licensed to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) on behalf of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, a partnership for maize improvement to benefit resource poor farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique.
To date, only three African countries — South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan — are produce GM crops. Four crops (maize, soya, cotton and conola) and two traits (insect and herbicide resistance) currently dominate adoption figures.
In East Africa, only Uganda and Kenya, are carrying out confined field trials on Bt cotton, maize and cassava.
Kenya has the National Biotechnology Development Policy 2006 while its Biosafety Act was enacted in 2009.
Uganda has the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy 2008 while the Biosafety Bill 2012 is in parliament for consideration. The National Biosafety Committee under the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology handles biosafety issues.
In Tanzania, the National Biotechnology Policy was passed in 2010 while its biosafety regulations were gazetted in 2009.
The laws also govern the importation of GM products into the country.
Tanzania recently reviewed its law on genetically modified organisms, paving the way for scientists in the country to start carrying out confined trials on crops such as maize and cassava.
The Tanzanian Division of Environment under the Vice President’s Office handles biosafety matters, some of which are addressed under the Environmental Management Act 2004.
Rwanda and Burundi only have draft biosafety policies and bills. Biosafety issues are under institutions responsible for environment.
The EAC biosafety policy will be submitted for approval by the Heads of State Summit in November, effectively cutting costs and duplication in testing and approval of GM substances among countries in the region.
Once the policy is adopted, the partner states will develop common policies, laws and take measures to ensure that the development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of any GMOs are conducted in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to environment, natural resources and human health.