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Bio-enhanced Seeds: creating the next generation of seeds

Bio-enhanced Seeds: creating the next generation of seeds

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Horticulture is one of the sub sectors in Agriculture that has shown great promise as a foreign exchange earner in the region particularly for Ethiopia and Kenya.

Kenya is the top exporter of fresh produce and flowers in sub-Saharan Africa with horticulture contributing 36 percent to the agricultural GDP and continues to grow at between 15 and 20 percent per year. Ethiopia on the other hand has achieved remarkable growth in the recent past. For example in 2009/10 financial year, horticulture accounted for 12% ($250 million) of the total export from agriculture. This is a 9% increase over a period of four years. 

The EU has recently issued stringent pesticide residue regulations that threaten the lucrative horticultural industry in eastern Africa. EU has introduced quality control measures to check the presence of pests and for conformity with pesticide residue limits, known as Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for pulses. The EU regulation authorities for example now require that Kenyan exporters conduct tests on their produce to ensure the MRLs do not exceed 0.02 parts per million (ppm) from a previous limit of 0.2ppm. The exporters are expected to meet the cost of these tests and will be done both locally and at the EU point of entry. The average cost per sample is $253 and there are a limited number of laboratories that can conduct these tests in the region. This has led the sector to experience significant losses in earnings with a 25% drop in the sale of French beans in 2013.

Finding alternatives to inorganic pesticide use is therefore imperative. One possible solution is the use of biocontrol agents also referred to as bio-pesticides. Most pests and pathogens have natural enemies and if the antagonist can be identified and isolated, they can produce in large enough quantities to control the pest’s/pathogen’s population. Bio-pesticides are less toxic, only targets specific pests, are effective in small quantities and decompose quickly thus impacting favorably to the health of humans and the environment.

 Consortium on Bio-enhanced seeds
Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology is leading the project on “bio-enhanced seeds and seedlings for eastern Africa” and is partnering with Real IPM, a private company in Kenya that produces bio-control agents and Alpha Seed Company Ltd of Tanzania. The project is focusing on maize, tomato and eggplant. The project is targeting two vegetables and a cereal. Tomato production in the region is in the region of 1 million tons per annum. Eggplant on the other hand is a favorite vegetable in the East African region due to its economic and nutritional value. Maize is a staple crop in Africa and provides food for millions in East Africa.

Bio-Innovate funded “bio-enhanced seeds” project focuses on developing a seed coating formulation and procedure for producing bio-enhanced seeds dressed with bio-pesticides. The project’s objective is to develop bio-enhanced seeds and seedlings within a regional, commercial setting to reduce the impact of biotic production constraints in crops in an environmentally sustainable manner, for the ultimate benefit or farmers.

The bio-enhanced seeds are coated with bio-pesticide formulation that provides resistance to pathogen-causing diseases that typically kill or weaken a crop. In this particular innovation, bacterial and fungal based-microbes Trichoderma asperellum, Metarhizium anisopliae and Bacillus subtilis are to be tested as potential biocontrol agents for maize, tomato and eggplant.

Progress and milestones
The consortium has produced protocols for bacterial and fungal based biocontrol agents to be applied on seeds. Efficacy test at experimental fields have also been conducted. Currently the tests are being advanced and validated at farmers’ fields.

The project has its set of unique challenges to overcome. For example, achieving uniformity in coating and treating the seeds is problematic. Adoption of the technology may also be slow as farmers are still skeptical of the ability of the bio-pesticide coated seeds to give good yields compared to conventional seeds and chemical pesticides. In addition from the results obtained thus far, the performance of some of the control agents in the field is still inconsistent and is influenced by soil acidity, radiation, atmospheric gases, temperature, light and moisture in the soil.

 Future direction and outcome of the project
The current methodology that Real IPM, the private sector partner will commercialize involve the farmers buying the biopesticide in powder form with instructions on how to dress the seeds planting. However this will require that the farmer follow the application protocols carefully for maximal effectiveness. The consortium will continue researching on easier and more effective application technologies to improve the potency of the bio-pesticides.

For this innovation to be successfully commercialized and ensure uptake in the region, enabling policy framework governing bio-pesticide regulations in the region need to be formulated and put in place, and preferably harmonized. Bio-Innovate will conduct a survey of the current regulatory landscape for bio-pesticides in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania with the aim of catalyzing the development and harmonization process for these regulations.

The project is envisaged to provide farmers with a simple, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way dealing with pests and diseases. Yields for these crops will be increased while the costs associated with pesticides is expected to go down not mentioning the positive health impacts on farmers due to reduction in the usage of chemical pesticides.