Why lifting GMO ban remains contentious despite attempts to introduce it in Kenya

Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia receives a report on GMOs from Prof Kihumbu Thairu, the chairman of the taskforce appointed to look into the matter, at Afya House, Nairobi last week. [PHOTO: FILE/ STANDARD

The nearly three-year-old ban on import of genetically modified (GM) food is as good as no more following the revelation early last week by the Deputy President William Ruto that the Cabinet will lift the ban in the coming two or three months.

The ban, imposed in November 2012 following the publication of the Gilles-Eric Seralini study linking consumption of Monsanto’s GM maize to cancer in laboratory rats, has been the focus of unrelenting attacks by pro-GM lobby groups, biotechnology scientists, cereals millers, Kenyan and foreign journalists.

Kenya-based pro-GM lobby groups described the ban as retrogressive, unscientific and based on irrational fears. They claimed, not entirely truthfully, that Kenya was the only country in the world to ban GM crops on the basis of the Seralini study. Kenya had thus become the laughing stock of the world, they said.

The pro-GM lobby groups spared no effort in labelling anybody who raised concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) as anti-science, backward, irrational and retrogressive. Cereals millers repeatedly pointed out that most maize in the world was GM and that Kenya would find it impossible to import any maize that was not GM to satisfy any shortfalls. Interestingly, the ban has also been the subject of attacks by different government departments or agencies. The government was in effect fighting itself.

The Ministry of Agriculture and research institutes under its umbrella were critical of the ban from the outset and made no secret of their disdain for the same.

The former Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Dr Romano Kiome, was opposed to the ban from the outset, describing it as legally unenforceable.  The suspended Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Felix Koskei, was on record soon after his appointment saying his Ministry had no issues with GMOs.

Meanwhile, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) continued field trials of GMO maize at its Kiboko Research Station with a clear intention of releasing it for commercial application this year or early next year. Kalro recently announced that its GMO maize was ready for cultivation by farmers subject to approval by the relevant regulatory agency.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA), which is mandated by an Act of Parliament to regulate GMOs, chimed in soon after the ban was imposed, claiming that the Cabinet was not the right body to regulate GMOs.

Early last year, NBA issued a statement saying 2014 would be the year to popularise GMOs to the Kenyan public. In apparent anticipation of the lifting of the GMO ban, NBA recently invited comments from the public before approving the GMO maize developed by Kalro.

Switched camps

The National Council for Science and Technology was also clearly opposed to the ban.  The council went about it in a subtle manner. They hosted famed British journalist Mark Lynas during his visit to Kenya in May 2013.  Mr Lynas had been a vicious opponent of GMOs but had switched camps in early 2012 and embarked on a global campaign to promote GMOs, particularly to African and Asian countries. His message to Kenya was simple: “There was no need for any further debate about GMOs. Scientific consensus was unequivocal. The future of Africa and the world lay with GMOs. Embrace GMOs or continue wallowing in poverty and deprivation brought about by food insecurity.”

After Kenya, Lynas visited Uganda, Tanzania and the Phillippines spreading the same message. While resistance to GMOs in Tanzania and Uganda was relatively muted, the same was not the case in the Phillippines where anti-GMO groups had destroyed fields of GM rice.

Clearly, there were external forces besides Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology behind Lynas tours. However, Lynas claimed that he was funding his trips from his resources.

The current stream of media articles trumpeting the benefits of Kalro’s GM maize is a clear indication that the lifting of the GMO ban is a virtual fait accompli.

The articles, particularly by the Director-General of Kalro and the executive director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), leave no doubt about the imminent commercial cultivation of Kalro’s GM maize. A recent article by Lynas in a local daily also pointed in the same direction.

When the ban is formally lifted, a number of Nairobi-based organisations will be celebrating. AATF has played a significant role in supporting the  development of Kalro’s GM maize. No wonder the heads of Kalro and AATF have written media articles in the past couple of days praising Kalro’s GM maize. AATF operates from the Uthiru campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Coincidentally, another pro-GM lobby group, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech (ISAA), also operates from the ILRI campus.

AATF and ISAA have come together and created another lobby group, the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB). Likewise, OFAB is based at ILRI and is housed within AATF offices.

A lobby group composed of Kenyan scientists, the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), completes the network of non-state actors whose sole purpose is to promote the adoption of GMOs. No other issue in Kenya’s recent history has been as heavily canvassed by lobby groups like the GMO issue. The lobby groups have been holding workshops countrywide intended to overcome resistance to GMOs.

In a typical workshop, representatives of the various lobby groups will speak. The public is led to believe the speakers come from different organisations. On closer scrutiny, they are the same people. They have perfected the art of appearing to be different groups supporting the same cause when in reality they are the same people. OFAB is a creation of AATF and ISAA. The same people will be found in ABSF. Who funds these lobby groups? Their funding certainly comes from external, not local sources. Multinational biotechnology giants like Monsanto, Syngenta and others are certainly funders to these lobby groups.

In its 2013 annual report, AATF lists its funders who include the United States Agency for International Development, Britain’s DFID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the H.G. Buffett Foundation, Pepsico, the soda manufacturer, and Syngenta.

The annual report further lists AATF’s partners who include Monsanto, Arcadia Biosciences, BASF , Dow Agro, Pioneer/Dupont and Syngenta.  The AATF 2012 annual report also includes the Rockefeller Foundation among AATF’s funders.

Clearly, local groups and individuals opposed to the adoption of GMOs had no chance against such well-heeled funders.

Moreover, the GMO ban was being fought from within the government itself. Probably the only government department that was committed to the GMO ban was the Department of Public Health in the Ministry of Health.