Syngenta's PR crop in Kenya delayed (14/12/2004)

The article below says the introduction of "genetically modified (GM) maize to Kenya is likely to be delayed by two years to 2010 following revisions to safety regulations for the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA)".

The driving force behind the IRMA project, although this is not made entirely plain in the article, is the Syngenta Foundation which says it aims to provide genetically modified maize varieties for use by resource poor farmers in the context of efficacy and environmental and socio economic effects. However, according to a report by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies, the Syngenta Foundation's activities have more to do with PR than with delivering real benefits to poor farmers.

He writes, "The Syngenta Foundation - has a poor record of supporting client-driven public agricultural research institutes, as illustrated by the Cinzana research station in Mali. The extent of damage by stem borers was repeatedly over-estimated based on ad hoc guesses. No rigorous assessments were done before the project was started of the extent of damage by stem borers, nor of whether farmers felt they were a significant problem. When the project did survey 30 villages throughout the country, none identified stem borers as the most pressing constraint upon maize production... project surveys found that many farmers were already using their own resistant varieties."

Insect Resistant Maize for Africa has been the Foundation's main project with its showcase IRMA project being the one in Kenya. Scientists have genetically engineered several maize varieties to protect against 3 types of stem borers.

The article below is accompanied by an image with the caption, "Drought and pests cause major losses of African maize crops". And the article tells us that, "Each year, stem borers are responsible for crop losses of up to 12 per cent, amounting to US$76 million in lost harvests." However, this is very misleading. DeGrassi points out that the IRMA project has yet to engineer protection against the most important stem borer in Kenya - the one which affects 80% of the country's maize crop!

In any case, deGrassi reports, stem borers are a relatively insignificant contributing factor to poverty in these areas. Of greater importance are other agronomic constraints - such as 'droughts, low soil fertility, and the weed Stiga - as well as other socio-economic and political constraints - such as corruption, HIV/AIDS, poor transport, unequal land tenure, and political repression.'

Moreover, other less generously funded projects have used a range of techniques that have already proved capable of protecting against stem borers in farmers fields. Some of these methods, which have been shown to reduce borers to negligible levels, have been tested in farmers' fields and are already being adopted. These methods, unlike the use of the genetically engineered (Bt)maize, do not face the likelihood of evolved pest resistance.

DeGrassi's overall conclusion on the Syngenta Foundation project, and others like it, is that 'while genetic modification may constitute a novel tool, in Africa it is a relatively ineffective and expensive one. Cash-strapped scientists working with poor farmers in Africa might well regard genetic modification as a waste of time and money.

Revision of safety rules delays Kenya's GM maize
[image caption: Drought and pests cause major losses of African maize crops]
Kimani Chege
Source: SciDev.Net, 14 December 2004

[NAIROBI] The introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize to Kenya is likely to be delayed by two years to 2010 following revisions to safety regulations for the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project.

The revisions, made public at a meeting of stakeholders in Nairobi on 9 December, are intended to bring the project in line with national and international standards by giving greater attention to threats that the release of GM maize could pose to the environment and human health.

"It became clear that regulatory issues were not exhaustively covered in the original project plan," said Stephen Mugo, IRMA's project manager.

Mugo said the revised rules are intended to be compliant with existing Kenyan regulations - which allow research on GM crops but not their sale - while being stringent enough to anticipate any changes to the law.

A group drawn from the IRMA project and the government regulator, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, decided on the changes. As well as revising safety standards, they updated plans relating to plant breeding, facilities and permits, and the social and economic implications of introducing GM maize to Kenyan farmers.

The IRMA project is a joint venture between the Kenyan government and international research institutes. It aims to develop a variety of maize able to resist attack by stem borers, major insect pests.

It is expected to cost US$6,670,000 during the next five years with the bulk of the funding coming from the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The Rockefeller Foundation is also a donor.

The project's GM maize was initially scheduled to be distributed to farmers in 2008, but, according to Mugo, the revised safety standards means this will be delayed until 2010. As a result, widespread distribution will only be achieved by 2011.

Joe DeVries of the Rockefeller Foundation said he hoped extra regulations would not slow the pace of the project. "It is clear that [this type of GM] maize has been tested and proven to work elsewhere hence there is no need for unnecessary regulations," he added.

Each year, stem borers are responsible for crop losses of up to 12 per cent, amounting to US$76 million in lost harvests. The IRMA project, which began five years ago, aims to create both conventional and transgenic maize varieties to resist the pest. The GM plants, incorporating genetic material from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, are referred to as Bt maize.

The research is being done by scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

The project's first line of the Bt maize has been tested in the biosafety greenhouse that was officially opened earlier this year (see US$12 million greenhouse signals Kenyan GM commitment). Approval for open field-testing is being sought from the government. If it is obtained, these tests will take place early next year.

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