Kenya’s principal Bt cotton researcher and director of the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KARLO), Dr. Charles Waturu, tells WAHINYA HENRY how his 19-year-old research is about to usher his country into the league of those using genetically modified, healthy agricultural products.
What was growing up in rural Kenya like back in your day?
I was one of seven siblings in a locality called Kariko in Nyeri County to parents who were small-scale farmers of maize, beans and coffee.
Like any other boy in the village those days, I engaged in herding livestock and various farm activities such as tending coffee and maize crops. Life was not rosy with the meagre earnings from the limited farming activities; hence, I occasionally engaged in casual employment of picking coffee in large settlers’ farms to supplement the family income.
Attending school in the early 1960s, which began directly at the primary level, was a norm for young boys and girls though schools were few and scattered, forcing children to walk for long distances in pursuit of education. Experiences in early primary education were challenging, particularly attending classes with thatched roofs that leaked during the rains. Huge insect grubs would drop [from them] interrupting learning. It felt great being in class for the first time, even though I wore an oversized khaki uniform, with no shoes.
Growing up in a village where there was no pipe-borne water a lot of times, I had to go fetch water from the nearest stream. I herded livestock and tended crops like coffee, maize and beans. Collecting firewood from the neighbouring settlers’ coffee farms was a major activity for boys and girls of that age at the time.
Attending a ‘day’ secondary school at St. Mary’s in Nyeri in the early ‘70s was hectic, particularly because it entailed trekking about five kilometres from home. Scarcity of finances meant that one had to contend with one andazi taken with uji (porridge made from millet and sorghum) for lunch. Learning in a Catholic school taught by Italian priests was both interesting and challenging, considering the English accent. However, going to ‘A’ level in 1975 at Nyandarua High School as a boarding student was a great relief since it meant access to sufficient food and no trekking from home.
After my ‘A’ Level education, I proceeded to the University of Nairobi for a bachelor’s degree in botany and zoology in 1981. In 1990, I attained a master’s degree from the University of Reading, the UK from where I obtained a doctorate in 1998, both in crop protection
You grew up in a region not known for its cotton production. How do you explain the passion for research for the fibre?
Having been employed in 1981 as a cotton entomologist, the passion for research with cotton was ignited and, has since then, over the last 39 years I have continued to work with cotton. Between 1981 and 1990 I carried out intensive testing of pesticides, focusing on [the] African bollworm (helicoverpa armigera) and red spider mites (tetranychus telarius). I tested most of the pesticides used in cotton production in Kenya that included synthetic pyrethroids, organophosphates, biological pesticides and miticides leading to the highest production of 70,000 bales by 1985.
In pursuit of control of the African bollworm, my research focus from 1991 to 2000 shifted to insect nematodes, leading to the discovery of a new nematode species (steinernema karii). The war on the African bollworms was not won and further research on genetically modified cotton (Bt-Cotton) became necessary.
Between 2001 and 2019, I shifted the research focus to Bt-Cotton Bollgard I, then to Bollgard II, both from Monsanto [Agrochemicals]. The insect-resistant cotton was tested through confined field trials until 2010. Two seasons of national performance trials (NPTs) on Bt-cotton have successfully been carried out with promising results. The momentous decision by the Kenyan government on December 19, 2019, to approve the commercialisation of Bt-Cotton in Kenya crowned the 19-year research on Bt-Cotton.
Over the years, you have promised farmers that the variety was on the way. This did not happen. Hopes were dashed. What were some of the reasons?
Research with Bt-Cotton was plagued by a myriad of challenges, including regulatory, limited understanding of GM technology, political goodwill and inadequate funding. In a nutshell, the challenges affected the roadmap for delivery of Bt-Cotton to farmers; hence, the continuous shifting of timelines.
How did you circumvent the challenges?
Teamwork, stakeholder awareness creation and lobbying by groups from public and private institutions helped to circumvent the challenges.
Is funding research work a problem? How did this affect your journey?
Research funding has always been insufficient and Bt-Cotton research was no exemption. Limited funding and untimely flow of funds caused delays in project implementation leading to dashed hopes of farmers.
How does it feel to have the variety commercialised?
The momentous decision made by the Kenyan government on December 19, 2019, to approve commercial farming of Bt-Cotton hybrids in Kenya following the successful completion of field trials gave me the best feeling of all times. The stream of congratulatory messages from technocrats, politicians, private sector and international sources sparked by the cabinet’s decision was an indication of a job well done by the Bt-Cotton research team.
Fears have been raised that genetically produced seeds will become the property of multinational firms. Are these fear valid?
Good planting materials produced by seed companies all over the world are protected and are more expensive than conventional seeds. However, the companies have the freedom to work with any registered seed company in Kenya; thus, addressing monopoly. Furthermore, other companies can also introduce their technologies in the country.
There are reports that Bt-Cotton farmers in India continue to commit suicides after Bt-Cotton failed….
Farmers’ suicide is a global phenomenon. Outside India, studies in Sri Lanka, USA, Canada, England and Australia have identified farming as a high-stress profession that is associated with a higher suicide rate than the general population. This is particularly true among small-scale farmers after periods of economic distress. In India, there is no evidence available of a resurgence of farmer suicides in the last five years. Suicide rates before and after the introduction of Bt-Cotton have depicted a downward trend in Bt-Cotton growing areas.
In Burkina Faso, Bt-Cotton backfired in a nation that prides itself as a leader on the continent. What is the present situation?
The Bt-Cotton introduced in Burkina Faso in 2008 was a local variety engineered to give it an inherent ability to resist attacks by bollworms. The technology was successful in reducing the use of pesticides by up to 70 per cent. However, the variety had short fibre characteristics that brought about marketing challenges, causing the authorities to pause planting of the variety in 2015. Some researchers attributed the problem to the then Burkina-based breeding programme’s failure to improve upon the cultivar resulting in undesired traits like short fibre length. Following this classic case of Burkina Faso, Kenya has the opportunity to avoid such situation so that Bt-Cotton hybrids with desirable characteristics are commercialised. Today, Burkinabe farmers are agitating for the re-introduction of Bt-Cotton, as their overall income has drastically reduced compared to the period, they were cultivating the Bt-Cotton. Burkina scientists are also working hard to sort out the technical issues.
Do you consider the achievement as a dream well earned? Why?
Having spearheaded delivery of the Bt-Cotton technology to the Kenyan farmer, I am now ready to go home and watch farmers benefit and textile manufacturing thrive in the country. Working with Bt-Cotton for the last 19 years and the momentous decision by the government of Kenya to approve planting by farmers is a well-earned dream. After delivery of Bt-Cotton to farmers, I may have finally achieved efficient control of the African bollworm following several attempts in the early 1980s.