Kenya is implementing guidelines to facilitate the commercialization of genetically modified crops by 2014 as part of efforts to boost environmental conservation and export crop production.
Crop researchers and breeders in the East African nation believe adequate progress has been made in efforts to commercialize food crops and to boost food security.
Kwame Ogeno, of the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) founded in 1990 at the height of the debate on the safety of biotechnologies, said high potential lay in embracing genetically modified crops.
Kenyan scientists, researchers, crop engineers and seed manufacturers held a week long meeting which ended in Nairobi on Friday to discuss ways of boosting the status of science and technology to emphasis chances of advancing scientifically and economically.
"The objective of this awareness on biotechnologies is to enhance knowledge-sharing and public awareness of biotech crops,” said Ogeno, a research assistant at the ISAAA Africentre, affiliated to the global food security think-tank, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Efforts to introduce the commercial plantation of genetically- modified crops, often seen as a solution to the food insecurity and drought linked to the effects of climate change, is rapidly gaining momentum despite earlier opposition due to health scares.
To allay these fears, Kenyan policymakers sought to create various regulatory institutions to ensure public safety, amid reports the mixing of genes to enable crops resist diseases could transfer risks to human beings and contaminate food chains.
Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology has been working with several bodies to promote the National Biotechnology Awareness Strategy (BioAWARE) Secretariat, to gathered information on the safety of these crops.
The Science Week was marked with the exhibition of innovations and presentations by leading academia in the country, which host dozens of international research institutions, partly responsible for the drive towards genetical modified crops rush.
"The potential is very high for enhanced crop production, food production and vaccines development. It is also important for environmental conservation,” Ogeno told Xinhua in an interview during the conference.
Kenya is expected to formally begin the commercial plantation of GM crops in 2014, several years after the country’s premier research on crop modification kicked off, defying local and international concerns about the safety of the crops.
"GMOs have consistently demonstrated a long history of safe use, “ BioAWARE said a paper presented during the First National Science, Technology and Innovation Week, marked in Kenya under the watch of the Science and Technology Ministry.
Scientists say the food safety assessments for genetically modified foods are more stringent than other regular foods and there have been no known risks to animal health, the environment and to human beings after nearly two decades of consistent research.
With the apparent approvals for the commercial production of the genetically modified crops, Kenyan research institutions have intensified preparations for the rollout of the commercialized crops made in the laboratory to last longer.
Kenya’s first major commercially viable genetically modified crop is expected to be cotton, which has been made to fight off the ballworm, a pest which destroys it, reducing farmers yields, a factor that is often cited as being behind its reduced production.
Ogeno said researchers have focused on inserting genes that enable the cotton seeds to fight off any possible attacks from the ballworm once it is planted. It contains genes drawn from the soil bacteria, which makes it harder for the worms to penetrate.
"We expect the production of cotton to grow from less than 50, 000 bales a year to 300,000 bales every year in the first year of its introduction. This will increase with the second tier of planting,” Ogeno said.
Kenyan biotechnology regulators appear convinced after gathering research findings based on research carried out over the last two decades.
"The findings published in 2007 concluded that experimental field research and commercial cultivation of GM crops provide no scientific evidence that presently commercialized GM crops has caused environmental harm,” the science ministry said.
The proponents of the plan are emboldened by the African Union (AU) backing for the need to harness biotechnology to help improve agricultural produce and health.
"Scientific technologies have brought revolutionary changes to virtually all sectors..in the fields of medicine, which have allowed complete sequencing of the human genome and the cloning of the Dolly sheep,” said Professor Shaukat Abdulrazak, the Secretary of the National Council of Sciences and Technology.
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is in the final stages of carrying out the trials of the drought-resistant maize, a weevil-resistant sweet potato is also being prepared for the mass markets as part of Kenya’s foray into food technologies.
Ogeno said researchers are also working on a virus-resistant cassava, which would make the crop more resistant to the mosaic virus, responsible for its declining yields.
With the plans to fully commercialize food crops in top gear, Kenya is expected to join a small group of only 29 countries worldwide, which have embraced biotechnology.
It would be the fourth African nation to grow commercialized genetically modified crops. At least 10 of those are rich developed nations while 19 are poorer states.
Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa have commercialized GMO crops. Almost 60 percent of the cotton farmers in Burkina Faso currently grow GM cotton.
Researchers say due to the genetic modification, the farmers now save 66 U.S. dollars an hectare on farm spraying out of the 247,000 hectares under biotech cotton. Earnings have also grown by 676 million dollars.