Experts call for speedy approval of Genetically Modified cassava

By , People Daily Digital
Tuesday, January 4th, 2022 01:00 | 3 mins read
Farmers during harvesting of the GM cassava on a trial farm in Mtwapa, Kilifi county. Photo/PD/WAHINYA HENRY

Fast approval to pave way for a Genetically Modified (GM) Cassava variety, which is resistant to two dangerous diseases will offer relief to residents of Kilifi county, who have been facing frequent food shortages.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) board in June last year gave a green light for open field cultivation of the GM cassava event 4046 following a necessary review under the country’s Biosafety Act, reversing the 2012 ban.

This significant milestone by the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Organisation (Kalro) paved the way for conducting National Performance Trials (NPTs) of these varieties before registration and release to farmers if the crops regulator finds that it meets all the attributes that scientists have listed.

However, experts say there has been delay in the registration and release of the the crop causing farmers continual loss due to a notorious infections, the mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD). 

County Executive Committee Member (CECM) in charge of agriculture, livestock and fisheries, Dr Luciana Sansua has blamed the delay on unnecessary hurdles, terming them as an impediment to modern farming technologies.

Dr Sansua said while on a tour of Mtwapa in Kilifi county by KALRO ahead of commercialisation where field trials have been going on to ensure the safety of the new variety. 

“Farmers in the county are looking forward to grow the crop, which is set to revolutionise cassava production that often has gone to waste due to destruction by the diseases.

Communities here have faced serious food shortage. Let us get rid of stumbling blocks on the way of modern agricultural biotechnology,” he urged.

Overlapping mandates

Nairobi based centre director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Dr Margaret Karembu echoed Sansua sentiments. 

“There exists a challenge in policy and regulatory implementation of the Biosafety Act and regulations in the country.

Overlapping mandates between the Biosafety Act and the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act (EMCA) have slowed down research and adoption of biotech crops in the country.

Dr Karembu said whereas the Biosafety Act requires submission of Environmental Risk Assessment for any GMO to be introduced to the environment, EMCA duplicates this regulation by seeking Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the same application. 

“This overlap has impacted the progress of biotech cassava research. Upon approval for environmental release, the developed cassava lines should have straight away gone into NPTs, but EMCA requires that Environmental Impact Assessment be conducted first, hence delaying delivery of improved cassava seedlings to farmers.

Regulatory barriers

Kalro Director General, Dr Eliud Kiplimo Kireger concurred: “On the policy front, a ban on importation of GM foods in 2012 is sending negative messages about agricultural biotechnology. These policy and regulatory barriers need to be addressed in earnest.

He demands that the disease-resistant cassava should get to farmers hands without delay, stressing all local and international biosafety standards were strictly observed during the development of the improved biotech cassava. 

“In arriving at the decision to approve the cassava for environmental release, NBA conducted a rigorous and thorough review, taking into account food, feed, and environmental safety assessment as well as consideration of socio-economic issues,” he insisted.

He exudes confidence the disease-resistant biotech cassava, once commercially approved, will restore farmers’ hopes and pride in the crop. 

Farmers lose between 30-100 percent of their cassava yield annually due to the brown streak disease.

The viral disease has devastated the crop in Kenya significantly, reducing the area under production from over 200,000 hectares, in the 90s, to below 100,000 in subsequent years. 

“Once it is finally available for commercial cultivation, all other players in the cassava value chain will benefit from disease-resistant varieties through improved farm productivity, and increased quantity and quality of cassava produced by our Kenyan farmers,” he said.

The improved cassava was developed under the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa Plus (VIRCA Plus) project in a collaboration between Kalro, the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in the United States.

Kalro and partners are currently developing a robust cassava seed system that will be key in ensuring effective downward seed distribution. This will ensure timely and efficient access of clean planting materials by smallholder farmers.

Those present during the tour witnessed the difference in performance between the disease-resistant biotech cassava and the conventional varieties, which are susceptible to diseases.

Kilifi is among the four counties in the Coast region ranked as the most hit by poverty and income inequality in the country.

Food crisis

Researchers have been growing and evaluating disease resistant cassava in Kandara in Muranga county and Alupe in Busia county

Dr Sansua revealed the latest drought ravaging the county left at least 45,000 people without food, adding a fast-maturing cassava variety that does well along the coast will in future cushion them against future food crisis.

“The county government is prepared to set up a cassava processing factory. But we need volumes and embracing of modern farming technologies to boost production and enhance nutrition and oppose the science,” she said.