Bridging vast knowledge gap will make raging GMO debate healthier

GMO is a plant or animal whose genome has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering techniques. [istockphoto]

Sometime late last year, the Kenya University Biotech Consortium (KUBICO) held a consultative meeting with key professionals and societies at the Serena Hotel, Nairobi.

The motivation was to provide factual rejoinders to the misconceptions gathering within the heated debate about genetically modified products.

The participants included MPs, press corps and academicians. I was privileged to attend at the invitation of Prof Richard Oduor, the research registrar at Kenyatta University, who is one of Kenya's foremost biomedicine researchers, and a well-known Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) apostle.

As a genre rank outsider, I pleaded honest ignorance, and opted to be the sessional devil's advocate for professional maize farmers, religious hawks, grain traders and other cadres who have deep-running misgivings about GMO products. I challenged the high-powered array of environmental scientists, regulatory clinical toxicologists, nutritionists and dieticians to disabuse me of my residual anti-GMO myths and fears.

The simplest definition of a GMO is a plant or animal whose genome has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering techniques. Primitive versions of this practice were present in agriculture for hundreds of years through conventional genetic selection and breeding, long before modern GMO techniques were developed. The GM debate itself has also been raging since the 1990s, the main contention being whether or not to consume the plants and livestock generated from such breeding.

Indisputably, improved crops have superior traits such as resistance to pests and diseases, and typically outperform conventional varieties within identical environments. The GM technology happens to be a handy shortcut for introducing traits that are hard to breed.

Often mentioned in this narrative are cassava varieties with reduced cyanide, potatoes that may be irrigated using inexpensive salty seawater, and high-yielding dairy animals. Among the well-known GMO-based products most Kenyans have consumed at one time or the other are insulin, covid vaccines, canola, sugar imported from North America and royco, (whose main driver is corn).

These were some of the persuasive points Prof Oduor and his team of scientists- all oozing the archetypal professorial flourish and charisma - raised as they pitched for GMO as the perfect answer to drought and starvation, more so with the world population having reached 8 billion on 15th November, 2022.

My take from the highly educative meeting included the following. Firstly, it was immediately obvious that a glaring knowledge gap exists among the different stakeholders in the GMO debate, which scientists and other pro-GMO fraternity folk have a huge task of bridging. These stakeholders include farmers, consumers, regulators, business people, the sacerdotal class, and researchers.

Rural farmers seem to be particularly alienated. For an extreme example, consider that many folks upcountry qualify unadulterated beef by observing whether it stinks and attracts flies or not.

Meanwhile, the central dogma of sophisticated crop breeding and genetic modification technologies includes introducing resistance to insects in organisms. Unless somebody explains in simple, unscholarly terms the innocuousness of GMO, some people will lose even the little faith that survived CS Moses Kuria's grotesque admission that GMO crops can 'kill'.

Secondly, as a number of participants observed, most regulatory boards in Kenya including in biosafety are composed of non-professionals, an aberration which greatly compromises their watchdog raison d'etre. Some board-members reportedly end up more concerned about tenderpreneurship rather than the plight of citizens.

Additionally, in view of the fact that the proposed mainstreaming of GMO technology might rely heavily on importation of the modified crops, the consequences of laissez faire regulation can be dire in this era when the world is interconnected in all possible ways, and products and services move freely from one end to the other.

Kenya's present incapacity to ascertain the scope of modification introgressed in a variety invites a real danger of red lines being breached, and any GMO - legitimate or otherwise - being sneaked in the country. No wonder the countries which pioneered the GM technology also enacted simultaneous stringent legislation to forestall abuse.

That said, we have all observed how the initial resistance to many previous novel technologies such as electronic fuel injectors (to replace carburetors), front wheel drive vehicles and even mobile telephony eventually collapsed. I make a prediction that it is just a matter of time before the GM technology similarly becomes mainstream.

Every scientific intervention inevitably comes with a package of solutions and problems in equal measure. Despite more doctors and medical interventions today, for instance, there is more sickness and death than a century ago. In the light of this, my well-considered opinion is that this amazing technology should be approved only for generation and testing in local institutions, and that adoption of foreign-bred GMOs should be last on the list.

This route will not only reduce over-reliance on imported technology and the seeds, but also allay the conspiracy theories abounding concerning cross-pollination and sterilisation of indigenous breeds, unfair agricultural monopolisation and neocolonialism by multinationals, loss of biodiversity in Africa, upshoot of antimicrobial resistance in humans, and other apprehensions that yours truly -the sessional devil's advocate- gathered from the grassroots!