NAIROBI: The field trials on a new genetically engineered cotton variety meant to be pest-resistant and higher yielding than traditional types has been approved by the National Biosafety Committee (NBC).
The National Biosafety Committee (NBC) in conjunction with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) have recommended the introduction of Bollgard II, an enhanced earlier type called Bollgard I that was tested between 2003 and 2005.
However, the introduction of new cotton seed, known as Bollgard II, marks major progress in the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in an industry that has been dogged by low production and pest infestation.
The new variety offered by the US-based agriculture technology firm Monsanto is expected to save farmers up to 32 percent in production costs, as it removes the need for pesticides required for conventional cotton farming.
Further, a Kenyan scientist, Dr Charles Waturu assured that NBC has approved testing of Bollgard II as the variety is toxic to key pests including the Africa bollworm, the most important pest of cotton in Kenya.
The chemicals are identical to those that have been used for decades in commercial anti-bollworm sprays, but that to released by the plants themselves are more effective. The expression of Bt-toxins in cotton plants greatly reduces the need for application of broad-spectrum insecticides, minimising the negative effect of the insecticides on the natural enemies of cotton pests.
The main objective of the Bt-cotton project is to establish the efficacy of the Bollgard I and Bollgard II genes on lepidopteran worm pests of cotton, as per Dr Waturu.
Further, the trials also aim to look at the impact of the modified plants on non-harmful, beneficial species of plants and insects, that environmentalists fear could be negatively affected.
The scientist added the research would examine the risk of the Bt-cotton inter crossing with commercial cotton varieties as the research into genetically modified (GM) options was spurred by the high costs of traditional cotton growing that had led to poorer farming practices.
Since 1998, research into various crops such as maize, cotton and sweet potato has been conducted in the country, but a biosafety draft Bill read in Parliament in 2005 has yet to be made into law.