Industries in Depth

How a genetically-modified maize could help end food insecurity in Africa

Christopher J. Elias
President, Global Development Programme, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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There is no single answer to ending food insecurity in Africa.

But if the 230 million Africans who are now undernourished are to get the food they need, then reducing the damage that pests do to crops – safely and sustainably – must be a big part of the solution.

Look, for example, at maize in Kenya. It is the country’s staple crop, helping feed over 80 per cent of the population. That’s why it is little short of a disaster for farmers and families that 13 per cent of the harvest is lost to pests every year.

Insects such as stem borers – which feed on maize leaves, stems and ears – help explain why maize yields in Kenya are little more than a third of the global average.

The result is that farmers’ incomes and the country’s food supply are reduced.  Although the country should be able to produce all the maize it needs, it has to import around 400,000 tons every year.

This is near enough the amount of maize lost to stem borers annually – which is why the development by African scientists of a new breed of the crop that is resistant to the pest is so exciting.

Bt maize is a maize that has been genetically modified to produce an insecticide – Bt protein – that kills stem borers. It has the potential to transform Kenya’s maize production and contribute to the struggle against food insecurity.

An application to allow cultivation of the maize in Kenya is now with the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) for consideration.

Whereas it is essential that the NBA examines every aspect of the seed and its socio-economic impacts before a decision is made, trial results, however, are extremely promising.

They show that the Bt Maize can control the two major stem borer pests in the country, improve the quality of the grain produce and make farming safer by reducing the need for spraying insecticides.

We know Bt maize is safe because it has been grown by millions of farmers in over 25 countries without problems for nearly 20 years.

But the best results will only be achieved if the varieties used are developed for national conditions.

Which is why it is encouraging that the development of the Bt maize under the WEMA initiative (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) has been spearheaded by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) – two world-class African institutions based in Kenya.

Through initiatives like WEMA, Africa can achieve food security by 2030.  Helping farmers increase production in a sustainable way, and sell more crops, will also help reduce poverty and boost economic growth on the continent.

It is true, of course, that GM technology remains controversial in some areas.

But the facts show that while Bt maize is new to Kenya, it has been used safely in the global food system for nearly two decades.

Three countries on the continent already grow GM crops. Seven more, including Kenya, have conducted or are conducting confined field trials.

If Africa is to successfully tackle food insecurity, then African farmers should be able to have access to a full range of options for crop improvement and protection, including GM technology.

And it is why we are so proud to have supported the WEMA initiative.

This article is published in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christopher J. Elias is President, Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Image: A cob of corn is seen in a field during a harvest near the village of Sartichala, outside Tbilisi, November 11, 2013. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili.

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