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Why Kenya is turning to genetically modified crops to help with drought

Kenya prepares to commercialise genetically modified crops.

Kenya is currently facing a severe water shortage caused by four failed consecutive rainy seasons, amid one of the harshest droughts the East African region has seen in four decades. This means crops are not able to grow, prompting warnings of potential famine.

GM seeds are those which have been genetically altered to produce what are seen as desirable qualities such as drought and pest resistance - and it is due to this resilience that they shine a positive light on the future.

They say the lifting of the GMO ban was prompted by the real need to ensure food security and to safeguard the environment.

"Climate change, the severity of drought and the emergence of new pests such as fall armyworms and maize stalk borer, and diseases such as maize lethal necrosis pose a real threat to food, [cattle] feed and nutritional security," said Dr Eliud Kireger, director general of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.

These diseases and pests destroy the maize crop. For example, fall armyworms eat through most of the vegetation as they make their way through crops.

Food scientists also say the technology will reduce the continent's dependence on food imports because it will boost production.

"We should embrace technology and see it as a part solution to the challenges we are facing more than what are the concerns", said Dr Murenga Mwimali, from the Alliance for Science at Cornell University in the US.

Targeting Kenya's staple

A 2018 review of studies on GMOs suggested that over the past 20 years the yield from GMO maize has improved.

Kenya's biotechnology regulator says there is evidence that costs are reduced because of improved weed control, less application of pesticides and reduced labour.

Lifting the ban means that Kenyan farmers can now openly cultivate GM crops, as well as import food and animal feeds produced through genetic modification, such as white GMO maize.

Maize is Kenya's staple food, and is grown in 90% of all Kenyan farms. It is used to prepare ugali, or maize meal, which is the country's most commonly eaten dish.

Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya's economy, employing 80% of the rural population. Kenyan farmers rely on their crops not only for income but as a source of food for their families.

Kenya is the eighth country in the continent to approve the use of GMOs. They are currently approved for cultivation in 70 countries around the world.


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