Transgenic Sweet Potato Could End Kenyan Famine

By Naftali Mungai

NAIROBI, Kenya, September 15, 2000 (ENS) - A genetically engineered sweet potato is being hailed as a potential solution for food shortages in Kenya. The virus resistant potato, which has already gone past the laboratory stage, is the product of a nine year collaboration between the United States, Monsanto and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.


Ongoing drought in Kenya has created food shortages which some think could be eased by transgenic crops (Three photos courtesy International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA))
The transgenic tuber is scheduled to be made available to farmers in 18 months, after greenhouse and field tests are completed.

"We will put it out in the field in the next four weeks under strict biosafety control, to evaluate its efficacy and test its environmental impact," said Dr. Richard Kiome, who heads the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

The sweet potato crop is among the most important root tubers and one of the most widely distributed in Kenya as a food security crop. But the average sweet potato harvest in Kenya has remained low due to a number of factors, including attacks by pests and the sweet potato virus disease.

Yield losses from the virus can be as high as 80 percent, according to KARI representatives.

Kenya's average sweet potato yield stands at six metric tons per hectare, less than half the world's average of 14 metric tons per hectare. It is hoped that the genetically modified potato will have the ability to resist viral attacks, thereby boosting yields.


Florence Wambugu (right), director of ISAAA’s AfriCenter and Ted Carey, sweet potato breeder of CIP in Nairobi, on a test plot
"I don't believe that we live in this world for our crops to be destroyed. We have been given knowledge for the earth to make sense," said U.S. special envoy Andrew Young, who flew to Kenya to promote the launch of the transgenic sweet potato.

The tuber is more popular among rural communities in Kenya than the more conventional Irish potato. Sweet potatoes also last much longer than other potatoes after traditional processing, making them an ideal crop for storage in dry seasons.

Ongoing drought in Kenya has caused other staple crops like maize (corn) and rice to fail in some areas, making the sweet potato even more crucial to local communities.

The collaboration with Monsanto and the U.S. helped make Kenya one of the few African countries which have developed elaborate national biosafety regulations and guidelines.

In April, the new guidelines enabled KARI scientists to approve the import of the transgenic sweet potato from Monsanto in the U.S. to Kenya for testing.

The initial genetic engineering work was done at the Monsanto laboratories. KARI’s Kiome told ENS that Monsanto developed a protein responsible for the virus resistance, and donated it to KARI, royalty free, to use in its sweet potato improvement programme.


Fatuma Fakhir Omari Ghelle, a sweet potato breeder at KARI, was awarded the William Brown Fellowship to learn about biosafety by receiving training from Monsanto, several universities, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Gene modification is a relatively new technique in Kenya. Other less high-tech biotechnological processes, such as tissue culturing, have been widely commercialized in crops such as bananas, macadamia nuts, pyrethrum and strawberries.

The sweet potato launch has prompted the Kenyan government, which has been quiet on the raging biotechnology debate, to state its position on biotechnology.

"Our position in Kenya is that biotechnology is not a problem. Poverty is," said Shem Adhola, a senior official in the agriculture ministry. "The quest to produce nutritious food and agricultural commodities in abundance is our challenge."

For Kenyan scientists, the challenge will be to change the attitudes of local people to appreciate the benefits and perceived risks of biotechnology, to allow them to make informed decisions about what they eat.

With only one sweet potato variety developed so far, scientists also face the challenge of developing other nationally popular crop varieties that will cater to the regional preferences in Africa.


Maize, another staple crop in Kenya, does not perform as well as sweet potatoes in drought conditions (Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service)
Agriculture is Kenya's mainstay, accounting for about 40 percent of its gross domestic product of about 753 billion shillings (US$9.5 billion), and employs more than 80 percent of its current population of 28 million people.

KARI and Monsanto are also collaborating on insect resistant cotton, and maize resistant to Striga - a parasitic weed responsible for destroying up to half of yields in western and coastal parts of Kenya.

Genetically engineered cotton is already widely under cultivation in South Africa, the leading African country in the research and production of transgenic varieties. Other countries, like Zimbabwe, are involved in research, and policy development, but have not yet reached the commercialisation stage.

KARI is Kenya’s main institute of agricultural research and technology transfer, in charge of promoting techniques to boost agricultural productivity and livestock production. Earlier efforts by the institute to promote sustainable agriculture have been constrained by a number of factors including poor soil fertility, poor rainfall, agricultural pests and diseases, and costly farm inputs.