JKUAT technology boosts Kenyan maize yield amid drought

Farmers are key during trials as they facilitate technology transfer.

By Tebby Otieno | tebbyotieno62@gmail.com

Agricultural researchers and scientists at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) couldn’t contain their excitement as they witnessed a bountiful maize harvest.

The Kenyan maize variety, DKC90-89, was planted on June 2 in JKUAT’s Modern Agriculture Demonstration Area (MADA) and yielded 50 per cent more harvest than those in surrounding farms.

“We have been doing research mainly on maize in the agricultural research farm here in JKUAT, focusing mainly on how to improve the yield per hectare of our main crop besides mitigating the climate change impacts,” said lead researcher, Prof David Mburu.

The researchers and scientists said DKC90-89 is not genetically modified. The improvement in yield was simply an outcome of optimised agronomic practices such as proper spacing, mulching, irrigation and effective pest control.

Registering 2,700kg yield per acre in the demonstration area, the crop has shown potential to reverse maize shortage in Kenya and contribute to food security for the population.

As COP27 discussions concluded in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Prof Mburu said his team has been conducting agricultural experiments that can feed the masses while keeping a tab on climate change.

He said they have been monitoring greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural production system and experimenting with different treatments to see which one emits the least. They have also conducted experiments outside the university in farmers’ fields in some of the driest parts of the country.

“We have done trials with farmers in a way of transferring the technology that we develop here to the farming community so that they can also benefit from technologies that improve the maize yield while reducing carbon emissions,” said Prof Mburu.

Prof Robert Gituru, the Kenyan Director of the Sino-Africa Joint Research Centre (SAJOREC), says food security is a prerequisite for development, comfort, and good life. He says the three cannot exist without agriculture.

“The harvest time has come and we are very glad to note that the productivity of the crop that we established inside this plot was very good. Actually it was extremely encouraging compared to the similar crop outside the demonstration area,” said Prof Gituru, adding, “We realised 50 per cent more produce.”

In 2019, the Wuhan Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and JKUAT, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on collaboration and the establishment of MADA at JKUAT.

According to Prof Yan Xue, Executive Director of the SAJOREC at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the researchers have also worked on other cutting-edge agricultural produce that can adapt to local climate and have yielded successful results in the past three yields.

He added that in the upcoming months, they hope to introduce kiwi fruit from their Botanic Garden and support the expansion of numerous varieties, including high-yield peanuts, hybrid rice, and other crops.

“It’s my high expectation that the existing collaboration between CAS and JKUAT will continue to grow from strength to strength for the mutual benefit of our research and capacity building. I hope that the achievement of MADA can be taken up and validated by the local people,” said Prof Yan.

Zhou Pingjian, the Chinese Ambassador to Kenya, stated during the harvest ceremony at JKUAT that hard work is not enough. Instead, he added, it was necessary to merge it with science, technology, and education to increase the output of maize and other agricultural produce.

“Everybody values the importance of food adequacy. So as a policy we are willing to deepen cooperation with our friends particularly African friends who is Kenya, through our cooperation in this field,” said Dr Zhou.

Prof Victoria Ngumi, Vice Chancellor of JKUAT, said witnessing the ceremony was one of the most fulfilling outcomes of JKUAT researchers and scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences on maize production.

She said the news of the 50 per cent more yields than crops in the surrounding area planted with the same cultivar revealed the importance of international research partnerships in solving cross-border problems.

“In this project, a Chinese technology was applied in Kenya and the outcome now promises to revolutionise maize production with potential impacts going beyond Kenya. As a university we are proud of this enviable outcome of our collaboration with Wuhan Botanical Garden Chinese Academy of Sciences,” said Prof Ngumi.

Many farmers, especially those in water-scarce areas, can only feel hopeful with this agricultural technology that has increased maize production for Kenya when the nation is experiencing a food supply shortage due to the prolonged drought.

According to Prof Ngumi, the technology will significantly increase local production of the staple crop while also demonstrating the validity of research as the only viable solution to societal obstacles like those encountered in the agricultural sector.

 Kenya’s October 3, 2022 decision to lift the 2012 ban on GM crops has raised mixed reactions among advocates and critics of the technology.

In November 2012, then Public Health and Sanitation Minister Beth Mugo banned importation of all Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) into the country.

Ten years later, President William Ruto has now overseen the opening up of the country to GM crop cultivation in a move that promises to unlock a multi-billion-shilling market for researchers and firms involved in the development, sale and marketing of genetically engineered seed and other planting materials.

Soon after the president’s announcement, the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) hosted a panel of scientists from both sides of the GM divide in a cafe on October 4, 2022.

Horticultural trade specialist Dr Sarah Olembo said the decision was taken in haste, without public participation and in violation of the 2000 Catargena Protocols that require buffer zones between GM and natural zones.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement that aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

It was signed by 103 countries in 2000 and came into effect in September 2003.

“The protocols provided for the cultivation of GM crops in specific zones while creating buffer zones between them and other natural zones. This has not yet been done in Kenya,” said Dr Olembo.

She said the country’s phytosanitary standards that regulate the movement of seed and plant materials had not been fine tuned to accommodate the changes, terming them “an ambush on Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS), the country’s phytosanitary regulation arm.

“I lack confidence in the current capacity of KEPHIS to handle the introduction of GM crops,” said Dr Olembo.

She said lifting the ban will put pressure on Kenya’s neighbours as it has now heightened the possibility of GM seeds and other planting materials crossing their borders.

“With the GM ban lifted, neighbouring countries will have to step up their surveillance protocols. Without that, they might as well allow the free movement of GM crops and related materials,” said Dr Olembo.

She also warned that the capacity of communities to maintain stocks of indigenous seed varieties would be compromised by the ban.

“Lifting the ban will jeopardise the seed sovereignty, human rights, and the traditional role of women as the community custodians of seed,” she said.

Seed expert and organic farming advocate Daniel Maingi said the introduction of GM food crops means that women will no longer be able to afford the seed varieties.

“The proposed punitive fine of Sh10 million or six months’ jail term for those found planting unauthorised GM varieties will also discourage many from the uptake of the new varieties,” Mr Maingi said.

He said the entry of GM crops would herald a new era of local seed market domination by agrochemical giants.

“Seed colonisation will strip communities of the ability to independently produce food, make them GM seed dependent and threaten food security,” Mr Maingi said.

He lamented what he called Africa’s disappointing move to adapt technology that the West was slowly abandoning.

“It is sad to see that we are going for industrial food, which requires lots of pesticides. This type of food, which Europe is abandoning in favour of organic crops we grow here in Africa, is also mostly tasteless,” he said.

Dr Murenga Mwimali, who is the Principal Research Scientist and Maize Breeder at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), said GM technology had provided a way out of the country’s pressing perennial food shortage crisis by providing a platform to undertake product development through engineering.

“We must find solutions to the problems we face. We have to apply new thinking to solve them. We cannot be thinking in new ways but living and acting in the old ways,” he said. 

Prof Douglas Miano, an associate professor at the Department of Plant Science and Crop Protection at the University of Nairobi, reminded the audience that the GM crop introduction into the country would be on a case by case basis, and not a haphazard process without the required safeguards.

“The lifting of the ban is not a free for all kind of declaration that will open the floodgates to random and uncontrolled GM crop cultivation. This is because the National Biosafety Act and the National Biosafety Authority that oversees the process of development and release of GM technology in the country are both in force,” said the lecturer and researcher.

“We have the laid down laws and regulation governing the development, assessment, release and follow up of GM crops and these have clearly not been done away with. They will still be followed,” he added.

He lamented that the ban had stifled local efforts to develop food security solutions using the technology.

“Our work was previously disappearing into a dark hole due to government policy that had outlawed food imports that were grown using GM technology,” said Prof Miano.

“Now we are free to pursue our research knowing that it can be applied once the approvals are sought from the required regulatory agencies and secured,” the scientists said.

According to Prof Justus Onguso of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), the lifting of the ban had revived interest in biotechnology countrywide.

“Students who had given up on biotech are calling us. They are interested in re-enrolling so that they can apply what they have learnt in developing solutions for the local market,” he told Sayansi.

Prof Onguso clarified that GM research had not been banned, but the negative publicity around the technology had driven scientists in the sector out of the spotlight.

“We were doing some projects in secret but now we can share the findings for the benefit of Kenyans and the world at large,” Prof Onguso said.

“The ban’s lifting provides a massive opportunity for us to develop solutions tailored for the Kenyan market all the way from concept, development, performance testing, approval, release and post-release surveillance and follow up.”

Among the ongoing research projects is a vaccine that can be taken as a banana.

“An edible banana vaccine is under development, for those people who do not find the idea of an injection appealing or palatable. It will be easier to dispense vaccines to children, for example, through such an innovation,” he said.

Prof Joel Onyango of the University of Nairobi asked Kenyans to trust in the capacity and experience of local scientists in developing home grown solutions for the country.

“Not everything must come from the West for us to see it as good or high quality. Let us learn to appreciate and respect the education and scientific talent or capacity in our midst,” said Prof Onyango.

“We do not need to see GM as a threat. It is also not a panacea to all our pressing food security challenges. But if it has been proven to work elsewhere, it will work here given the opportunity and following the laid down regulations.”

He assured the public that the National Biosafety Authority will not license any GM crop or tech that is unsafe.

“NBA has been mandated to monitor the tech’s use and carry out comprehensive surveillance of such varieties’ release and cultivation,” said the researcher.

He said the technology could be used to boost the country’s production to cover the shortfall in cereal supply.

Kenya produces 2.4 million tonnes of cereal each year compared to a consumption level of 4.2 million tonnes.

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