Kenya’s biggest biotech moment offers opportunity to make money from GMOs

A new report by Chatham House, the London-based international think on global issues, has warned that Africa risks squandering opportunities to reduce poverty among the majority of her people amid a toxic debate about genetically modified (GM) crops.

The report, On Trial: Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, published last month, says that the debate, which is characterised by misinformation, polarised discourse and politically-correct policies, has resulted into regulatory uncertainty, consumer distrust and weak farmer demand.

It advises that the crops are more likely to be taken up by a small number of ‘best bet’ countries with less disabling political conditions, lower levels of consumer distrust, genuine farmer demand and government commitment.

Kenya must fancy itself among the ‘best bet’ countries ready for the commercial production of GM crops, having built sufficient capacity to address the safety concerns often associated with biotechnology.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the lead regulatory agency, has been in place for five years and has gained some experience approving genetically modified products for importation and cross-border movement of humanitarian assistance and relief supplies.

The NBA has still more layers of the regulatory firewall to turn to from its collaboration with other agencies like the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, the Department of Public Health, the National Environmental Management Authority, the Department of Veterinary Services, the Kenya Wild Service, the Pest Products Control Board and the Kenya Industrial Property Institute.

The country is also hardly lacking in the relevant human capital with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) scientists leading nearly all ongoing efforts to develop superior crop varieties using biotechnology. Local public universities have kept the skills production line running, with scores graduating with biotechnology degrees, including PhDs and Masters, every year. Being the research hub in Africa, hosting a number of respected international institutions, the country is also home to some of the best biotechnology scientists on the continent.

The early momentum, which brought high hopes that Kenya was on track to going commercial with GM crops, coincided with the political goodwill shown during the five-year period culminating into the enacting of the Biosafety Act of 2009.

In between, then President Kibaki presided over the opening of the modern Biotechnology Centre at the Kenya Institute of Agricultural Institute (Kari) in 2004, signalling his administration’s intention to deploy agricultural biotechnology in the fight against hunger and poverty and attract foreign direct investments.

Scientists have compared the potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology for food-poor African countries with the phenomenal farm productivity gains experienced by India during the famous Asian Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Asian Green Revolution sparked by the breeding of improved rice and wheat varieties is credited with supporting the country’s fastest population growth, averting a looming famine and weaning it of food-aid dependence.

But a combination of recent government inertia and activist scaremongering in recent years has seen the momentum lost and put Kenya at risk of losing out on the benefits of the new Green Revolution.

A number of promising crop breeding efforts have stalled at confined field trials with regulatory authorisation for open field tests and their ultimately being made available to farmers not forthcoming.

Scientists researching the high-yielding Bt Cotton variety had hoped that it would be commercialised by 2013 while those working on drought-tolerant maize varieties under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project set a 2017 target.

Any more delays mean that Kenya would fall farther back in the biotechnology race (or gene revelution) on the continent behind South Africa, Sudan, Egypt and Burkina Faso, the only four countries to have allowed commercial production of GM crops. Last year Burkina Faso earned one billion dollars from Bt Cotton as Kenya’s cotton industry struggled to survive.

The vigour with which Uganda and Nigeria have been pursuing similar research projects recently suggests that they too have given themselves a chance of beating Kenya to the finish line.

But the positive vibes around biotechnology in the country in recent weeks have handed the government another window of opportunity to make the next crucial step and authorise commercial production of GM crops, enabling Kenya to recover some lost ground.

The government particularly needs to listen to the voices of the smallholder farmers represented by the county governors’ lobby and that of the local business people through the Cereal Millers Association all of whom continue to make a strong case for going commercial with GM crops.

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