GMOs unlikely to end hunger in Kenya, but indigenous foods can

Sorghum farm in Tiendereti, Nyamira County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

About a month ago, the National Museums of Kenya in collaboration with multiple local and international partners hosted the Indigenous Seed and Food Culture Harvest Fair.

It was a wonderful opportunity for Kenyans to immerse in the stories and display of our indigenous knowledge and technologies on soil and seed preservation, food growing and food preparation from communities from all over Kenya.

It was a beautiful celebration of our culture and diversity, and a reminder of how much our indigenous foods define us and help us build connections beyond our families and communities.

One thing that was made clear is that, our food - how it’s grown, produced, procured, cooked, eaten and served - is our cultural heritage! The richness and depth of Kenya’s indigenous food system, how it contributes to well-being and health, benefits communities, preserves our rich biodiversity and our cultural heritage, and provides for way more nutritious food was evident.

The celebration was however short-lived because just a few days after the indigenous seed and food fair, President William Ruto announced that the Cabinet had approved importation and cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops as part of its efforts to alleviate food insecurity. This came after a 10-year ban which had been relished by civil society and indigenous farmer groups as part of their efforts in protecting indigenous farmers and our local food systems.

The greatest concern for lobby groups, indigenous farmer groups and the majority of Kenyans since the uplifting of the moratorium is, why this is happening considering the documented impact and concerns - ethical, political, legal, environmental, economic and social - of biotechnology innovations? No clear road map has been set up to address these concerns.

Multiple players have faulted the government decision to lift the ban based on the fact that there is no sufficient evidence that GMO technology would help the country combat food insecurity and deliver socio-economic benefits. Some are even pursuing a legal redress over the matter, and just recently a court injunction was issued stopping the importation of GMO maize.

Kenya’s capacity to manage biotechnology is wanting based on the reports by the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association. The association has stated that Kenya lacks sufficient capacity to regulate GMO because the National Biosafety Authority is limited in both human and financial resources.

The lifting of the ban further spurred the debate on the development of indigenous and local innovations and technologies. This is something that has been alluded to in national agricultural and biodiversity conservation policies and strategies, but has never been given the attention it deserves in terms of investment.

The biggest question is, why is the government not purposefully pursuing and investing in research and development of local knowledge and technologies, which have been proven to be sustainable, climate resilient, farmer-friendly, highly productive and equitable? These systems are less prone to global market risks and provide a great opportunity to spur agricultural industrialisation and economic growth.

The sad reality is that local varieties of crops and animals are disappearing at an alarming rate, just as local knowledge, culture and skills of farmers according to the 2021 Kenya National Biodiversity assessment report. Our indigenous food production, and the conservation and use of local crop varieties is further threatened by the criminalisation of seed exchange and sharing, a practice that 80 per cent of Kenyan farmers have relied on for many generations. 

With the just-concluded COP27 in Egypt and countries’ reaffirmation of the Paris Agreement, the Kenyan government needs to be reminded of the commitment towards strengthening local technologies, practices and efforts in addressing and responding to climate change, as envisaged in the agreement.

As developing countries are also looking to capitalise on the share of the billion dollar climate fund, it is imperative for the government to look into directing a significant share of the funding it will receive into developing local food system innovations. Innovations that have been proven to be low in carbon emissions, resilient to climate change and have the potential to guarantee food security as well as economic development. Adequate incentives should be provided to encourage adaptation and adoption of these innovations in line with local conditions.

Such investments should not just end at the production level, because to ensure food security, other equally important dimensions such as access and sustainability must be prioritised. Our indigenous foods should be available in all parts of the country. Challenges in the value chain, specifically in processing and distribution, must be addressed as part of the development of our local food system.

To encourage more people to consume and cultivate traditional foods at house-hold, small and large-scale levels, more consumer awareness needs to be done on the value of traditional foods especially in the angle of its nutritional and agro-ecological benefits.