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Story Publication logo November 30, 2009

Kenya: Wild Elephants Won’t Stop GMOs


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African farmers already struggle to grow sufficient maize, which is a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry...

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In some parts of the world, biotech companies have had to worry about keeping environmental activists out of their research plots. Companies can ill afford to have these big-money experiments ruined. Here in Kenya, scientists have a different worry - elephants.

This morning, I headed south of Nairobi to the village of Kiboko and a national agricultural research station that specializes in study of the effects of drought. It never rains, I'm told, between May and November, making it easy for agronomists to study the impact of drought on crops simply by withholding the irrigation water upon which the plants depend. It is on a few acres of this farm where scientists plan next year to try out a plot of corn lines that are being genetically engineered to yield better than conventional hybrids when rainfall is insufficient, a common problem throughout east Africa with corn, a staple food crop that isn't particularly well suited to the region because of the lack of reliable precipitation. The corn will contain a gene that U.S. biotech giant Monsanto Co. developed and contributed to the project. (Monsanto would like to see the African version available to poor farmers when the company it rolls out more sophisticated drought-tolerant corn seeds in the United States over the next decade.) The project, called Water-Efficient Maize for Africa, is being funded by the Gates foundation.

Scientists with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the Kenyan research institute are practicing for the GMO field test by conducting a mock trial of conventional corn using all the security measures that will be needed (and required by Kenyan regulations) to prevent pollen from escaping from the research site. That includes having 24-hour security and a high fence topped with barbed wire. But it also means digging a trench around the site to keep the elephants out, the fence not being a sufficient deterrent. The trench isn't a requirement of law, I was told, but instead a necessity to protect the crop. Photographer Sarah Elliott captured the workers as they were digging at the site when we arrived this afternoon. Note that they are throwing the dirt on the side of the trench nearest the fence. If the dirt was piled on the outside, the elephants could simply push it into the trench and head into the fence, according to James Karanja, a scientist with the national research institute.

How valuable this biotech crop turns out to be remains to be seen, of course. That depends on how effective this gene is in the African cultivars it will be tested in, and then there's the small problem of getting into the hands of farmers without a well-developed system to distribute seeds to poor farmers for whom they are intended. The farmers, in turn, don't have access to fertilizer, or the expertise these scientists have. Elephants are the least of their issues.



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