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An important milestone for Bt maize

IRMA project staff working with Bt maize in Biosafety greenhouse (IRMA)
IRMA project staff working with Bt maize in Biosafety greenhouse

Without maize, Kenyans say, there is no food. This simple adage reflects not only the importance of maize as a staple crop but the harsh reality of growing sufficient maize to meet annual household needs. Each year, the struggle for survival for many subsistence farmers is affected by the increasing impact of pests and disease, particularly stem borers, which voraciously consume 400,000 tonnes of maize, inflicting on average 15 per cent annual yield losses. Such large losses are estimated at US$72 million per year in Kenya alone, although stem borers are a problem in most of East and Southern Africa, particularly the pink stem borer (Chilo partellus), which invaded Africa from the Indian sub-continent over 60 years ago and has rapidly become a predominant pest. However, although it may be another few years before the results are felt by farmers, a public-private partnership aims to develop maize varieties - through conventional and genetic engineering - that are resistant to stem borers and are better adapted to Kenyan growing conditions and meet farmer and consumer preferences.

First in its field

KARI's Level-2 Biosafety Greenhouse

The biosafety greenhouse at KARI's National Agricultural Laboratory has been built to level-2 standards, which allow experiments with transgenic plants and associated organisms which - if released outside the greenhouse - could survive but would have a negligible impact or could be readily managed. Specifications for the greenhouse include fine mesh screens, double entry doors and double drains to prevent the inadvertent movement of pollen or other transgenic plant material.

The Nairobi facility is only the second of its kind to be built in sub-Saharan Africa; the other is in South Africa. Its inauguration by President Kibaki in June 2004 highlighted Kenya's interest in taking a lead role in biotechnology in the region.

The Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project is a collaborative effort between researchers from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), supported by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation, to identify sources of stem borer resistance through conventional and biotechnological means. Launched in March 2000, the project has passed a number of important milestones but, most recently, has received approval from Kenya's National Biosafety Committee for confined field evaluation of maize varieties containing the cry1Ab or cry1Ba genes from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis - otherwise known as Bt genes. Although not a first for the continent (Bt maize is already grown in South Africa), it will be the first field planting of Bt maize in Kenya.

Bt maize was also the first transgenic maize to be legally imported into Kenya in May 2004. The original Bt maize seeds were developed by CIMMYT in Mexico and were used for sowing in the newly opened Biosafety level II greenhouse complex at KARI. The proposed field evaluations will continue to build on and verify results already obtained from the greenhouse trials and earlier bioassay experiments, to further evaluate the efficacy and effects of Bt genes against the C. partellus stem borer. Seeds will also be multiplied for use in other research, but most importantly, the field trials will allow the development - through the process of backcrossing - of appropriate germplasm for stem borer-affected regions in Kenya.

Striving for perfection

Official confirmation is still required from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) but, once it has been received, the first field crop of Bt maize will be sown in a one-hectare open quarantine site at KARI-Kiboko located 150 km south of Nairobi along the Nairobi-Mombasa road. Comprehensive measures are already in place to prevent the inadvertent transfer of pollen and seed from these specially designated fields to other areas, including locating the open quarantine site 400 km from other maize research fields, and surrounding the field by a two metre high chain-linked fence and locked gates. All procedures will be conducted according to strict biosafety regulations approved by the Kenyan government.

It is expected that the first crop of Bt maize from the open quarantine site will be harvested before the end of 2005. It may be another five to six years before GM maize is harvested in farmers' fields but IRMA project staff believe that the benefits Bt maize offers will be worth the extra time taken to achieve the rigorous targets set in meeting not only biosafety requirements but in matching the needs of Kenya's subsistence farmers.

Date published: March 2005


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