Think out of the box in tackling food insecurity

Top of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda is food security, and there is a reason for this.

First, in the last few years, an impression has been created that Kenya is a food insecure country. The controversy over the importation of maize from Mexico and other scandals involving procuring of food at the Departments of Agriculture for counties considered food deficient has always ended up embarrassing the Government with sleaze taking centre-stage.

The President's swearing in public that he would "deal with officials" found culpable in the corruption cases, something we considered unpresidential, was not without reason. By now he must be appreciating the high stakes in the food sector.

Food Security is a major issue in Kenya. Yet the debate raging now is whether Kenya is really a food insecure country; or whether those who suffer hunger are victims of a lack of ways and means to get the food to them. This unique case seems to challenge the Malthusian theory that population growth will surpass food supply at some point.

That there is plenty of food in one part of the country and lack of the wherewithal to get it across where it is badly needed confounds everyone.

For example, we know that farmers in Kenya’s food basket regions, particularly in Western Kenya, complain of poor pricing (because of less demand) as the main reason they no longer till their land, yet hundreds of miles away in North Eastern and parts of Eastern Kenya, because of the high prices, food eats up a household budget.

And despite the arguments by the farmers that food is plenty now, we still import huge amounts of the same.

Several propositions have been put forward to explain the food scarcity experienced locally. From establishing robust markets to putting more arable land under irrigation, to enhancing extension services, we have tried all that, albeit with little success.

Modern technology, especially the use of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds, has been a thorny issue, yet for Kenya to be become fully food secure, it might become necessary to adapt the GMO technology. Accepting GMO will take some time, but it will take something drastic to mitigate against food insecurity.

The controversy over the issue is rife. Recently, the topmost European court ruled that gene-edited crops were GMOs, and that they must therefore comply with tough regulations that apply to plants made with genes from other species. This ruling got companies that had patented their products worried because it created an impression that GMO products were not safe for consumption.

GMO crops are associated with increased use of chemicals, like glyphosate, that are toxic to the environment and humans. These chemicals not only contaminate our food and water supplies, but they also compromise soil quality.

The negative impact of GMO that most subsistence farmers in Kenya might face once this technology is deployed is not being able to re-use these seeds because once planted, the seeds do not germinate again. This shall make the farmers dependent on firms that market the seeds.

The use of GMO is actually not a new phenomenon. Since 1200 BC, humans have domesticated plants and animals using selective breeding or artificial selection.

The process involved selecting which organism with desired traits are used to breed the next generation, while organism that lacked the right genes were generally avoided. This was the precursor to the modern day GMO.

Proponents of GMO argue that genetic engineering can help us breed crops that resist drought, diseases and insect pests, which means farmers achieve higher yields.

But legally, GMO commercial production is not allowed in Kenya. A legislation to allow growing of such crops was passed in 2009, but a framework to establish a regulatory system had not been put in place before the ban on imports and cultivation was suddenly announced in November 2012.

The ban came after a controversial study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini that linked cancer in rats to consumption of genetically modified foods.

The general feeling for now is that GMOs are a No. Yet the dilemma remains: What to do to stave off hunger?

Kenya must start looking for other ways of making her people food secure. This country has plenty of resources such as a vast and arable land that is capable of producing enough food for everyone and possibly even for export.

But make no mistake, the GMO debate will not go away just yet.

Mr Guleid is executive director of the Frontier Counties Development Council