CATHERINE Taracha, a scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), is looking forward to starting planting genetically modified (GM) cassava on a trial basis after the government recently approved the process.
‘We will do the trials in Western Kenya, at the Coast and in the Eastern part,’ Taracha said Monday during a virtual meeting in Nairobi, expressing optimism that in two year’s time, farmers across the country and other parts of East Africa would start growing the crop commercially.
‘This is procedural. All GM crops have to go through the process and once we are done in two year’s time, small farmers would start planting the new variety cuttings,’ she said.
The Kenyan small farmers, especially in the three areas, would buy the product at a subsidised rate, said Taracha, the director of bio-technology centre at Kalro.
She is among a group of scientists from Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda working to commercialise the GM cassava in a bid to boost the industrial and food capacity of the crop.
Farmers across East Africa are currently planting traditional varieties of cassava that are prone to diseases and pests, which has affected commercialisation of the crop.
‘We are optimistic about the new crop because cassava is the second most important food crop in dry areas across East Africa in terms of food security,’ Taracha said.
In Kenya, only 970,000 tonnes of cassava are produced annually, and this is because of diseases like cassava mosaic and brown streak as well as pests like whiteflies and mealybugs.
For millions of farmers across East Africa, the cassava mosaic disease was a real problem in the mid-1990s as it spread like bush fire in the region, causing over 80 percent yield losses.
Annual yield losses due to the disease are estimated at 7 billion shillings (about $65 million) in East and Central Africa, according to Taracha.
‘We are banking on the GM crop to boost this crop. There is a huge market for cassava because of its huge potential,’ she said.
Besides making composite flour thus reducing pressure of reliance on maize, cassava can be used to make biodegradable bags, beer and industrial starch and ethanol and used for making hand sanitisers, said Taracha, stressing the crops can stir manufacturing and boost incomes across East Africa.
According to her, farmers across East Africa will be able to get cuttings in centres in the three countries.
‘Cassava takes 9-12 months to mature. Agronomic practices don’t change at all because farmers would not be required to use fertiliser or pesticides on the crop,’ she said.
Andrew Kigundu, a Ugandan scientist who is involved in breeding of the GM cassava, noted that farmers will benefit from the new cassava variety due to increased root quality and higher yields.