By Mary Hearty

Though Kenya has a great potential for cotton production, low return on investment as a result of infestation by the African bollworm pest had almost crippled the sector.

A report by the Fibre Crops directorate shows that cotton production in the country has declined from a peak of 70,000 bales per year in 1986 to about 5,500 bales per year in 2019.

The African bollworm is a pest that attacks the vegetative growing, flowering, and fruiting stages of host plants including cotton, sunflower, tomato, maize, and others. Studies show that the pest is responsible for up to 100% yield loss if no action is taken. Thus, farmers would spend up to 40% of the input cost on pesticides to save their yields.

However, the introduction of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton in Kenya in 2019 is a ray of hope for the farmers as it is tolerant to the destructive pest.

Through genetic modification using biotechnology, the insect protection trait in this new variety has been developed using a harmless soil bacterium called Bt. The bacterium produces protein toxins that destroy the gut of the invading pest, hence leading to its death.

Consequently, it enables farmers to use less pesticides, and yields almost four-fold than the traditional variety as most crops are restored. In addition, Bt cotton matures within a short time compared to the conventional varieties.

A study done in South Africa on the impact of genetically modified cotton showed that Bt cotton used significantly less insecticide than growers of the traditional variety. Moreover, some studies indicate that it has resulted in a reduction of up to 80% of pesticide use, thus helping in the fight against climate change.

Cotton after the ginning process

Bernard Ojiambo, a cotton farmer in Mulwanda in Busia County, and one of the beneficiaries of the genetically modified (GM) cotton variety has lauded Bt cotton, terming it as better compared to the traditional variety as he uses less pesticides compared to the traditional variety.

He notes that despite being highly tolerant to the African bollworm, Bt cotton still needs protection against pests and diseases such as blight, and Cercospora leaf spot.

“I normally use the pesticides three times; after two weeks of planting, then four weeks, and lastly seven weeks but the traditional variety is sprayed about 12 times,” Ojiambo says.

In addition, Ojiambo says the new cotton variety yields quite well within a short period with adequate rain as it takes about four months to be harvested compared to the traditional variety which takes about six months to yield.

In 2021, when he first planted Bt cotton, he got about 200 kilos of cotton in a one-hectare piece of land whereas, in 2022, the yield reduced to 150 kilos with each kilo sold at Ksh52 (about half a dollar). The reduction in yields was a result of the prolonged drought experienced this year as a result of climate change.

“Bt cotton does very well, especially when it gets enough water up to four centimeters long. One hectare piece of land is capable of yielding about 1000 kilos of cotton, as each stem produces as many balls ranging between 30 and 50,” Ojiambo says.

In addition, he states that how farmers plant the crop can also affect the yield, in that the spacing of the crop should be 100cm by 16cm with a gap of 45cm each.

“Proper spacing also affects yields because when the spacing is bigger or smaller, the production also reduces. We are also advised not to do mixed cropping because it affects the crop’s yields as well,” Ojiambo adds.

Mutuku Mulei, a cotton farmer from Kitui County, also lauds the shorter time Bt cotton takes to yield, noting that when they plant the Bt cotton variety in November, by March the following year the cotton variety is ready for harvest.

Despite the bounty harvest witnessed by these farmers, they lament that inadequate rain experienced during the 2022 May-June-July season terribly affected the GM crop’s yields, as they recorded low harvest.

Despite the bounty harvest witnessed by these farmers, they lament that inadequate rain experienced during the 2022 May-June-July season terribly affected the GM crop’s yields, as they recorded low harvest.

Peter Muli, a cotton farmer in Miambani in Kitui County who just completed harvesting the two cotton varieties notes that Bt cotton yield reduced.

“When we started growing Bt cotton in 2020, the yield was quite impressive compared to the traditional variety as the rains were moderate enough, but this year it did not perform well, the rains have been quite low,” Muli says.

“If there would be adequate rains and we were to choose between Bt cotton and the conventional variety, we would prefer the new variety.”

Peter Muli in his cotton farm in Miambani

Mutunga Kabibia, a cotton farmer in Kitui County has made a similar observation. He reiterates that Bt cotton variety is much better compared to the traditional one, but it is not as drought-tolerant as they anticipated. “When the rainfall is inadequate, it begins to wilt then stops producing balls,” Kabibia says.

With the issue of inadequate rain reported by most farmers this year, Charles Muli, a farmer in Meru County says he prefers the traditional variety to Bt cotton.

He argues that the traditional variety retains more water and so this enables it to produce more cotton balls whereas Bt cotton stops producing cotton balls when the rain stops.

“With the conventional cotton variety, I can harvest at least 10 bags of cotton unlike Bt cotton which yields only around eight bags with inadequate rain,” he says.

Despite Kenya’s field trials showing that Bt cotton can survive on less rainfall than the traditional cotton variety, reduced yields witnessed by these farmers is a clear indication that extreme weather patterns, especially drought and heat stress affect the new variety as well.

Dr. Joel Ochieng’, Secretary General of the Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium, also clarifies that the misconception of GM products is that they solve all problems on earth.

“Bt cotton solves a specific problem, it is developed for cotton bollworm, not drought, because the drought tolerant trait was not stacked into it. Normally, we go for the biggest problem for the farmers. In areas that grow cotton, drought is not the biggest problem,” he says.

In 2021, the Fibre Directorate reported a decrease in the country’s cotton production of about 2,527 lint bales compared to 6,196 bales in 2020. The government agency noted that some counties did not grow cotton either due to the unavailability of seed or harsh weather conditions which discouraged farmers.

On seed availability, Dr. Ochieng says that the seeds are not available because the cotton is going through the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) regulation process. He adds that the seeds that were initially given to farmers were part of the pilot study.

“There is a process of GM development, and once it is released, it has to go through all the seasons before KEPHIS can now authorize a variety. So at the moment, we are going through the regulation process,” he notes.

In addition, Dr. Ochieng explains that the Bt cotton yields four weeks earlier than the conventional variety, though this depends on the agro-ecology in which it is grown, noting “If you grow it in Meru or Busia, you will observe some of the difference, just like other crops. Early maturation is not because it is genetically modified. It matures earlier in some regions because it is grown in an area where crops generally mature faster.”

For this reason, Taher Zavery, Managing Director of Zayn Agro Industries Limited suggests that farmers need to be educated on BT cotton seeds. At the Kitui Cotton Ginnery where cotton is manufactured before distribution to the textile industries, the company has been holding meetings with farmers over the last two years to sensitize them on the new cotton variety.

Taher Zavery, Managing Director of Zayn Agro Industries Limited

From what we have learnt, he continues, Bt cotton does not do so well in dry areas like the Eastern parts of Kenya but does quite well in other areas like Lamu County and Western part of the country. Consequently, the amount of production varies according to these regions.

Zavery notes that the yield from the farmers varies from 300-1000 kilograms (kgs) per hectare, with Lamu County producing about 600-700 kgs of Bt cotton per hectare while Eastern Kenya produces 300-500kgs.

Ideally, he states that the yields of Bt cotton are not so much on the seed but also the weather condition. Lamu County is mostly wet with fertile soil, unlike the Eastern region which is mostly dry.

“If you take Bt cotton seed which is a good seed but you put it in a dry area, it will not do as well. But if you took it to a good area, the yields are higher than the conventional seed. And so, from our experience so far, it is not tolerant to drought,” he reaffirms.

Zavery notes that despite these observations, it is too early to ascertain the outcomes as Bt cotton was just commercialized two years ago.

In addition, he says: “We are not seeing the actual results because there has been prolonged drought for the last two years. So, it would be unfair to conclude that the seeds did not do well when it is just lack of adequate rain. Maybe by next year, we will have a better idea of whether it is a good seed or not.”

He notes that the government policy has been to give the farmers Bt cotton seeds for free in order to promote cotton farming, however, once the pilot program is completed, farmers will be buying the seeds at Ksh2500 (about USD 25) whereas the conventional ones cost less than Ksh200 (about two dollars).

Also, like other hybrid seeds, whether conventional or transgenic, Bt cotton seeds cannot be replanted. The only replantable seeds are the open-pollinated varieties, which is what farmers’ landraces or traditional seeds are made of.