Nelly Bassily | October 25, 2010
Researchers in Uganda and Kenya have been given the go ahead to plant trials of genetically modified maize. Twelve varieties of Water Efficient Maize for Africa, or WEMA, will be planted. The maize is genetically modified to be tolerant to drought.
The varieties were developed through a public-private partnership led by the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation, or AATF. AATF joined forces with Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology company,the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, and national agriculture research organizations in five project countries; Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa.
The researchers estimate that 650 million people in Africa depend on maize. But maize is badly affected by drought. Maize yields could drop dramatically with climate change. Droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe. For these reasons, scientists working on the new varieties believe it is important to explore the potential of biotechnology to maintain and increase food production in Africa.
Daniel Mataruka is executive director of AATF. He said there is preliminary evidence that the WEMA varieties provide yields that are between 24 and 35 percent higher than current farmers’ varieties.
Researchers conducted mock trials in Kenya and Tanzania in 2009. The trials simulated field conditions and procedures to be followed in actual trials. Mock trials are part of the process required to secure the regulatory approval needed for full confined field trials.
Mr. Mataruka explains, “The mock trials have provided an opportunity for researchers … to fine-tune the procedures of carrying out the actual transgenic trial in 2010.”
James Gethi is WEMA’s country coordinator in Kenya. He says, “Everything we have seen in the simulated trials shows that we can safely test transgenic maize varieties in carefully controlled and confined field trials in Africa.”
The transgenic maize will now be planted in one- and two-hectare trial fields in Kiboko, Kenya and Kasese, Uganda. Confined field trials are expected to begin this planting season. Confined trials are designed to prevent the introduced genes from escaping into the environment. The fields are isolated from other maize crops and fenced. AATF said the resulting trial maize crop will be destroyed, as required by Kenyan and Ugandan research regulations.
Mozambique and Tanzania are in the process of obtaining permits to conduct their own confined field trials. Scientists in South Africa began confined field trials last year.
The European Union has strict regulations governing the cultivation of GM crops. Critics and consumers have questioned the safety of GM foods. Many countries have banned their import or cultivation due to fears they could harm humans and wildlife.
However, farmers’ expectations are high, according to Dr. Godfrey Asea. Dr. Asea is involved in the research effort in Uganda. He says that the GM drought-tolerant maize will be available royalty free. This means that seed companies will sell it to farmers at an affordable price. Dr. Asea says a lot of effort has been spent to ensure that this variety will be cheaper than the maize currently on the market.
Dr. Asea expects that the GM maize will be available to farmers in 2017.
Dr. Asea and his many colleagues are also working on conventionally-bred drought-tolerant maize. This is expected to be available to farmers by 2013.