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[NAIROBI] The introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize to Kenya is likely to be delayed by two years to 2010 following revisions to the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project.

The revisions, made public at a meeting of stakeholders in Nairobi on 9 December, are intended to bring the project in line with national and international standards by giving greater attention to threats that the release of GM maize could pose to the environment and human health.

"It became clear that regulatory issues were not exhaustively covered in the original project plan," said Stephen Mugo, IRMA's project manager.

Mugo said the revised rules are intended to be compliant with existing Kenyan regulations — which allow research on GM crops but not their sale — while being stringent enough to anticipate any changes to the law.

A group drawn from the IRMA project and the government regulator, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, decided on the changes. As well as revising safety standards, they updated plans relating to plant breeding, facilities and permits, and the social and economic implications of introducing GM maize to Kenyan farmers.

The IRMA project is a joint venture between the Kenyan government and international research institutes. It aims to develop a variety of maize able to resist attack by stem borers, major insect pests.

It is expected to cost US$6,670,000 during the next five years with the bulk of the funding coming from the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The Rockefeller Foundation is also a donor.

The project's GM maize was initially scheduled to be distributed to farmers in 2008, but, according to Mugo, the revised plans means this will be delayed until 2010. As a result, widespread distribution will only be achieved by 2011.

Joe DeVries of the Rockefeller Foundation said he hoped extra regulations would not slow the pace of the project. "It is clear that [this type of GM] maize has been tested and proven to work elsewhere hence there is no need for unnecessary regulations," he added.

Each year, stem borers are responsible for crop losses of up to 12 per cent, amounting to US$76 million in lost harvests. The IRMA project, which began five years ago, aims to create both conventional and transgenic maize varieties to resist the pest. The GM plants, incorporating genetic material from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, are referred to as Bt maize.

The research is being done by scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

The project's first line of the Bt maize has been tested in the biosafety greenhouse that was officially opened earlier this year (see US$12 million greenhouse signals Kenyan GM commitment). Approval for open field-testing is being sought from the government. If it is obtained, these tests will take place early next year.

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