Corn and climate: The story from Kenya

Corn and climate: The story from Kenya

Corn stocks harvested for livestock feed.

The current drought facing the U.S. should send down jitters among net food importers worldwide as the price of major grain crops is set to rise dramatically. The drought can be seen as a result of climate change that has led to unpredictable weather patterns the world over.

Farmers in Kenya continue to face the challenges of unpredictable weather patterns that either bring too much or insufficient rain and extreme weather conditions. The situation has been worsened by the loss of local and traditional seed varieties that are more resilient to dry weather.

Women, have since time immemorial been the custodians of seeds in Africa. They bred, selected, sorted and stored seeds for different seasons and ceremonies. They understood their environment to the extent that they could read nature signs and predict what the next season would bring. That is how communities would always be prepared for droughts and would save sufficient food to take them through hard times.

Even with women as custodians of seed, men too had their role in ensuring food security for their families. Some crops like yams were crops tended to by men. I remember going to the village as a young child and grandma would ask grandpa to dig up some yams for us to carry back to the city. One time I asked grandma why she could not dig up the yams herself and she responded that that was the work of men and a crop tended to by grandpa. This remains vivid in my memory, almost twenty years after grandma passed on from throat cancer. 

Sometimes I ask myself why grandma got throat cancer yet she lived a healthy life eating grains, vegetables and fruits from her farm? The more I think about it, I remember how she was so proud when her eldest son planted coffee bushes on her farm, this was the new cash crop. But did it bring all blessings? No, I remember seeing grandpa spray the coffee bushes with chemicals; yes one was "malathion." Not much protection was used and often when it rained, the chemical flowed to the rest of the farm. Maybe, this was what led to her getting throat cancer.

Kenya’s staple crop, maize (corn) has been affected by a strange disease, suspected to be Maize Lethal Necrosis, affecting thousands of acres. This is cause of worry given that we no longer maintain sufficient grain reserves to even last the country six months. The government is scrambling to buy up new reserves now, but the situation is quite unstable.

In 2011, there were reports in the media that Kenya was exporting its maize crop to South Sudan even when the country did not have sufficient stocks in place. A consequence of this was the country was again forced to import maize from South Africa, which produces about 70 percent genetically modified (GMO) maize. This was the same case in 2010 when GMO maize was imported from the U.S. and South Africa. Civil society groups under the umbrella of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) raised objection to the importation of GMOs when the country had not put the required regulations in place, but to date none of their concerns have been responded to. We hope this may change with the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) in 2011. The NBA now becomes the regulatory agency responsible for the approval of testing, trials, importation, transit and labelling of GMOs in Kenya.

With all these challenges of drought in the face of climate change, maize disease, the push by the biotechnology industry for the acceptance of GMOs in Africa and the increasing grain food prices, one wonders often what will happen to the small scale Kenyan farmers trying to make ends meet. The farmers have been encouraged to abandon their local and traditional seed varieties for ‘improved seed varieties’ that include hybrids. Every season, the farmer must buy the hybrids to ensure sufficient production but is sometimes let down by unpredictable weather patterns.

The overdependence on maize as a staple and its prioritization by the government has not helped much. There are other grains and pulses that can be promoted and which actually perfume better in drier areas. These grains include millet, sorghum, finger millet and pulses like green grams, lentils that can help in ensuring food security.

Maize is a difficult crop, a slight drop in moisture, temperature, lack of inputs often leads to its failure. A recent study links maize to the spread of malaria in Ethiopia yet we keep on prioritizing it as a food security crop.

Even in the midst of all these challenges related to food, production and the rising prices of commodities, many false solutions continue being manufactured for Africa. Apart from the promotion of GMOs, farmers in Western Kenya and Nyanza are now having to deal with a new project on trade in soil carbon. The Kenya Agriculture Soil carbon project promises farmer groups monetary gains if they put in place sustainable agricultural practices like the use of manure, composting and reforestation. While the practices being promoted should increase food production, a lot of emphasis has been put in efforts to monitor soil carbon sequestration. At the end of the day, though, a lot of the money that might be generated will go to pay consultants to ensure that the soil carbon is actually sequestered.

As farmer Patrick Magana from Kombewa in Kisumu asked: "With trees you can count them and calculate the carbon using a formula, but, how do you calculate soil carbon?"

And even in this project on climate change, farmers are being told to grow more maize. We need solutions that help farmers cope with unpredictable weather, solutions that build on the traditions of saving seeds and reading nature, and consider crops that really do perform under these unpredictable conditions.

Anne Maina is the advocacy coordinator at the African Biodiversity Network, based in Nairobi.