First GMO maize planted in Kenya

By Henry Neondo

Kenyan maize researchers have planted the first biotechnology-driven maize outdoors to hotly follow in the footsteps of South Africa.

The insect resistant maize was planted at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, KARI-Kiboko station on Friday, the 27th May, in an open quarantine site, OQS, in the first of a series of Confined Field Trials, CFTs.

Experiments with the insect resistant maize have been taking place at KARI biotechnology centre in a biosafety greenhouse opened in June 2004.

After dedicating more than five years to developing the insect resistant maize, KARI and CIMMYT scientists are looking forward to finally putting it to the test.

Now the OQS trials are being undertaken by the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa, IRMA, a joint research project of KARI and the international Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, CIMMYT, supported by the Sygenta Foundation for sustainable Agriculture and the Rockfeller Foundation.

Expressing his feelings on the occasion, Dr Stephen Mugo, the IRMA project Manager and CIMMYT maize breeder, "the prospects of testing the Bt-Maize in the field is exciting".

While his counterpart, Dr Romano Kiome, Director of KARI said that KARI is pleased to announce the planting of these trials after years of laboratory research as part of an innovative approach to help Kenyan farmers fight stem borers .

The trials at Kiboko will serve two purposes according to IRMA project manager and CIMMYT maize breeder, Dr Stephen Mugo.

First, he says, they will be used to determine the effectiveness under field conditions, of the insect-resistant maize against stem borers in Kenya.

Second, the plants will be crossed with Kenyan maize lines as part of a breeding process that will produce Bt maize varieties adapted to Kenyan growing conditions.

Stem borers have always been a bane to Kenyan maize farmers and according to entomologists, it is responsible for losses of up to approximately 400, 000 tonnes of maize in Kenya each year, amounting to 13.5 per cent of 2,142,000 tonnes of maize produced in Kenya

"Indeed, this is close to the total amount of maize imported by Kenya annually, estimated at 242 000 tonnes ", said Dr Kiome adding that this loss directly affects the livelihoods of thousands of families dependent on maize as a staple and a source of income.

It is against this background that KARI and CIMMYT have strived to develop maize varieties resistant to stem borers.

According to KARI, the production of the genetically modified varieties, great emphasis has been put on adherence to biosafety procedures that have been developed and approved by the National Biosafety Committee, NBC, which is coordinated by the Kenya National Council for Science and Technology, a government body charged with formulating and directing science and technology research policies.

According to Dr Simon Gichuki, who also is the Principal Investigator, these CFTs will also be conducted in strict accordance with the terms proscribed by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, KEPHIS and the KARI.

Dr Gichuki said that the open quarantine site where the confined trials will be conducted was built to specification and includes may biosafety and security measures to ensure genetic and material confinement within the OQS.

This means that no pollen seed or other plant material escape the trial area or cross inadvertently with maize not included in the experiments. This way, none of the material from the OQS will enter the maize reproductive and food and feed pathways before authorisation by the Kenya regulatory system.

At the moment, other than South Africa, and a few others, majority of sub-Saharan African countries including Kenya have no law governing genetically modified organisms and most still drag their feet on the biosafety framework despite repeated appeals from the countries scientific communities for the process to be hastened.

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