Some Kenya smallholder farmers aggrigating their potatoes for market.

Developing blight-resistant potatoes on course, could mean no more spraying

By Zablon Oyugi

Potato farmers could soon reap the rewards of a project aimed at developing four potato varieties that are resistant to late blight disease, ultimately eliminating the need for chemical spraying.

The initiative, known as the Global Biotech Potato Partnership, is spearheaded by a team of scientists working across Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. This collaborative effort, coordinated by Michigan State University, involves key partners, including the International Potato Center (CIP) in Africa, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), and the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).

Dr Eric Magembe, the project leader in Kenya and also representing CIP, highlighted the significant losses incurred by farmers due to potato late blight disease and the high costs associated with chemical sprays.

“As a biotechnologist, I am aware of the losses that farmers incur during their production process, thus we intend to choose the best variety out of the four to distribute to farmers, and eventually enhance potato output for food and nutritional security, as well as for revenues,” he said.

“The adoption of these genetically modified (GMO) potatoes will not only benefit farmers but also contribute to a healthier environment, reducing the reliance on chemical treatments to combat the disease,” the scientist added.

Confined Field Trials Stage

In Kenya, the project has successfully progressed beyond the Confined Field Trials (CFTs) stage, with trials taking place in potato-growing districts such as Njabini, Muguga, and Molo. Experts are currently evaluating the potential of the four genetically modified biotech potato varieties.

Dr Catherine Taracha, the project’s Principal Investigator (PI) at KALRO, explained that insights from CFTs would inform the selection of varieties moving forward to the National Performance Trials (NPTs) stage.

“Kenyan smallholder potato farmers face numerous challenges, including the persistent threat of late blight disease. Managing this disease remains a formidable task due to their limited production capacity,” she said.

Despite being the second most cultivated crop in the country and a source of livelihood for over 2.5 million people, Kenya loses a staggering 30 to 60 pe rcent of its potato crop to late blight disease annually.

“The development of biotech varieties is crucial to effectively combat late blight, especially given the resource constraints faced by farmers,” the scientist stated.

Late blight disease trials

Mr Erick Korir, the principal biosafety officer at the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), confirmed that KALRO and its project partners have received authorisation to conduct late blight disease trials over three seasons, as part of the nationwide multi-Location CFTs (ML-CFTs).

“This will enable the accumulation of ample data to guide the subsequent phases of the project,” stated Korir. He expressed satisfaction with the rigorous biosafety protocols in place, emphasising that biotech crops, which incorporate foreign genes, must undergo field testing under strict guidelines. The tested biotech varieties will remain at the CFT trial sites until they receive NBA approval for release into the environment.

Comparative studies conducted during the second round of ML-CFTs have shown that biotech potatoes, in contrast to traditional varieties susceptible to late blight, yield higher results and do not require chemical spraying.

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