Genetic resources Research Institute, preserving the future of Kenya agriculture

It is vividly clear that there is power in diversity. However extinction of plant genetic resources like diversities of other life forms in Kenya has since the recent past been on the rise due to genetic erosion brought about mainly by replacement of traditional varieties, desertification, and population pressure on land among other factors.

Genetic resources are essential basic building blocks, utilized in research, to generate improved technologies for enhanced agricultural production, food security assurance, agricultural resilience as well as economic growth. They are important as they constitute biodiversity which is very essential in ecosystem and environmental health.

According to Dr. Nyamongo, the Director of the Genetic Resources Research institute (GeRRI), abandoning of landraces by farming communities due to increased promotion of elite hybrid varieties in the 1970s occasioned unprecedented loss of genetic diversity. This realization triggered the Kenya Government to approach the then Federation republic of Germany for financial and technical support in the establishment of a genebank.

Consequently, in 1988, the government of Kenya established the National Gene bank under the auspices of the then Kenya Agricultural Research institute (KARI), now re-organized into Kenya Agricultural and livestock research organization (KARLO).

“The main objective for the establishment of the gene bank was to contribute to sustainable crop production by ensuring availability of a broad genetic base through preserving the country’s crop genetic heritage as well as traditional practices and indigenous knowledge systems.” said Dr Nyamongo.

The Gene bank has cold rooms with a capacity of 150 m3 in two storage cells of 75 m3 each. The genebank currently holds close to 50,000 accessions (samples) belonging to over 2,000 different plant species. GeRRI collects this diversity from farmers as well as wild landscapes and stores the resources in the Gene bank for current and future utilization in research, thus securing this valuable  heritage and protects it from genetic erosion occasioned by natural catastrophes of land anthropogenic activities.

Several methods are used to conserve different types of plants. For instance, orthodox seeded species (those whose seeds can withstand desiccation to ultra-low moisture content and there after freezing at sub-zero temperatures) are conserved in seed banks as seed.

However for recalcitrant seeded species such as Mango and Avocado, drying their seeds to such low moisture content kills the embryo. Such species are better conserved in field gene banks as living collections.

Alternatively, they can also be conserved as in vitro cultures under slow growth or have their cells/DNA cryopreserved in ultra-low temperatures using liquid nitrogen. This approach is also used for species that do not produce seeds such as banana and taro.

The enactment of the Kenya Agricultural and livestock research (KALR) Act of 2013 was a major boost to ex situ conservation of our genetic diversity.  The Act has elevated GeRRI to a semi-autonomous research institute with mandate to conserve all components of genetic diversity.

“GeRRI, has now realigned its functions and is proposing to establish four other repositories namely: The National Animal Genetic Resources Research Centre, The National Microbial Genetic Resources Research Centre, The National Aquatic and other marine Genetic Resources Research Centre and The National Insect and other Arthropod Genetic Resources Research Centre; in order to cater for other components of genetic diversity”, said Dr Nyamongo.

In addition, the enactment of the Seed and Plant Varieties (Amendment) Bill 2015, currently pending in Parliament together with the gazettement of its Regulations shall position GeRRI as a national institution responsible not only for ex situ conservation but also facilitating access and use of the genetic diversity for economic development. This will also ensure that farmer’ rights to use and exchange indigenous seeds for their socio-economic development is well protected as envisaged in the Kenya Constitution 2010.

 “Awareness levels among the public regarding our core mandate and responsibilities is generally low.  We are thus targeting farmers, community level actors, the general public as well as research scientists and conservationists involved in research and development continuum to raise the awareness.” explained Dr Nyamongo. All these actors constitute a community of beneficiaries of the rich genetic diversity.

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