Maize production still miles away from demand

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021 00:00 |
Maize farming. Photo/Courtesy

Charles Onyango

Maize is the main consumed grain in Kenya at 71 per cent, followed by wheat and rice at 21 and eight per cent respectively.

Maize consumption in the country is estimated at 100kgs per person annually, translating to approximately 35 million bags (about 4 million metric tonnes annually).

However, with an annual production of 2.8 metric tonnes, Kenya will likely struggle to meet the current demand of 4 million metric tonnes.  

Assuming a constant per person consumption rate and steady production growth, a 2015 study estimated that maize consumption would be 8.6 million tonnes by 2050.

But with the cereal gaining a meteoric rise in popularity even in countries where other substitutes have historically been the major diets, such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, the regional demand will continue to outstrip supply; putting a strong upward pressure on consumer prices. 

Maize production in Kenya is constrained by underlying factors such as soil acidification due to continuous multi-year use of acidic fertilisers, lack of access to improved seeds, and impact of maize lethal necrosis factor.

As a result, the country faces an annual deficit of 1.2 million metric tonnes, with the deficit projected to grow annually amid an increasing population size and demand. 

But while the national and county authorities in the agricultural sector have initiated a raft of measures to improve yields, including distribution of certified seeds and alternative inputs to fertilisers, recent data indicates these steps — even if they result in a 100 per cent production increase — are unlikely to match demand beyond 2023.

The deficit necessitates frequent imports to supplement domestic production. In 2010, exports accounted for 2.96 per cent of the country’s GDP, and would later in 2011 grow to 3.94 per cent of the GDP. 

Globally, grain prices of genetically modified (GM) maize are comparatively cheaper than non-GM.

In countries that predominantly grow GM maize, a 2014 Food and Agricultural Organization and official statistics from Kenya Cereal Millers Association showed that GM maize is still cheaper by about 30 per cent compared to non-GM ones. 

Authorities in Kenya cannot currently import GM maize due to a 2012 ban on importation of GM foods following a publication by a group of French scientists, claiming rats developed tumours when fed with Roundup-ready or Roundup-tolerant GM maize.

Even after the paper was retracted for falsifying facts and different studies in Kenya reprimanded the ban for lacking scientific and legal merit, it still holds sway.

Besides heightening food prices, the ban stalled progress in agriculture and food security research; halting many biotechnology projects.

GM foods are one of the key products of biotechnology hence their banning makes Kenya an unattractive destination for investment in that field.

This has led to a drop in funding for biotechnology research and product development and low enthusiasm among students pursuing training in this field.

If we can learn anything from the consequences of the GM ban, it is that public policies, more than ever, should be guided only by credible science.

Government leaders cannot afford to continue relying on intuition, other people’s opinion, and blind luck when making decisions with more pronounced economic impacts. 

The ban is yet just another example of how very wrong political leaders can be when they fail to recognise the need for evidence in supporting claims. — The writer is  Global Impact Fellow at MWI

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