By Sharon Atieno

Biotech crops can effectively contribute to addressing food security and mitigating climate change challenges in Africa. However, good will and support from African governments is needed to expedite approval process for commercialization.

This sentiment was shared by Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, TELA Project Manager at AATF during the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA’s) Fourth African Conference of Science Journalists.

He noted that while frequent drought events due to climate change, infestation of new pests like fall armyworm, use and misuse of harmful pesticides and low productivity due to low soil nutrients and recycling of old seed varieties, have resulted to recurrent food insecurity in Africa, biotech crops are reversing this trend.

Dr. Oikeh said the TELA Project is working towards getting transgenic drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties to farmers to enhance food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“When farmers have access to the TELA maize varieties they will be able to mitigate effects of climate change especially moderate drought and losses to insects such as stem borers and fall armyworm,” he said.

Dr. Oikeh noted that TELA Bt maize hybrid varieties were released to smallholder farmers in South Africa in 2016 and have been granted environmental release to proceed to national performance trials in Kenya which are being carried out by the Kenya Plant Health and Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) to determine the agronomic potential and adaptability of new varieties relative to those currently in the market.

“Bt maize gave positive and significant effect on yield across varieties and trials with 52 per cent yield advantage over non-Bt maize in Kenya and Uganda,” said Dr. Oikeh, noting that full adoption of Bt maize in Kenya could save the country a whopping 400,000 tonnes equivalent to US 90 million that is lost to stemborer damage annually.

He re-affirmed the safety of biotech products, noting that farmers from other regions across the world are enjoying the benefits of the technology.

“Several global authorities including World Health Organization (WHO); Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and many Academies of Sciences have all indicated the GM food that have been evaluated and passed through regulatory scrutiny and approved are safe to eat,” Dr.Oikeh emphasized.

In Africa, nine countries including Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria and Sudan have approved and released transgenic cotton, cowpea, maize and soybean. Globally, 67 countries are either growing or trading with biotech crops.

The TELA Maize Project is working with governments in seven African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda – to deliver the new TELA maize varieties to farmers. All TELA maize varieties will be made available to smallholder farmers through local seed companies after assessment by national authorities according to the country’s regulatory requirements.