Help us fight misinformation on biotechnology, CS Linturi asks scientists

ISAAA Board chair Dr Robert Karanja, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi and ISAAA Director Dr Margaret Karembu during the ABBC 2023 Symposium in Nairobi. [Courtesy]

Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture and Livestock Development Mithika Linturi has challenged stakeholders in the biotechnology space to come up with strategies to counter misinformation that has been peddled by anti-biotech activists.

Speaking during the 5th edition of the Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication symposium (ABBC2023) in Nairobi, Mr Linturi noted that opponents of biotechnology have been peddling lies that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a negative impact on health and the environment, and it is time to put a brake on such lies.

Though biotechnology has been touted as an innovative solution to solving the current food crisis in Kenya, sadly its adoption has continued to face hurdles.

"Since I joined the Ministry of Agriculture, most of my work has been undoing the damage caused by misinformation. Information on technology that is good like biotechnology has been distorted," he stated.

She pointed out that the theme of this year's conference: "Evolution of genetic improvement tools in agriculture: Is communication matching up" is timely given the wave of misinformation flying around about GMOs.

Explaining why the Government made the decision to lift the ban on the importation of GMOs into the country, Linturi noted that high cost of living and shortage of food in the country are dire and urgent action is needed.

"Our inaction is what has led us to where we are. Climate change has affected the food situation, the Kenyan population is growing, land mass is not growing and our soils are degraded. Unless we use biotechnology to feed our people, we will keep getting complaints," he said.

Responsible politicians

He challenged politicians to offer solutions to the food problem instead of just peddling lies about GMOs.

"Scientists can tell us about biotechnology because they know the science. We need to have responsible politicians who can tell us what biotechnology can do."

Linturi noted that in this infodemic era (situation of too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments), biotechnology has been a victim of misinformation and the debate on GMOs has been polarized by politicians.

To counter the problem of misinformation on GMOs, he challenged the stakeholders at the forum to suggest innovative strategies, and policy interventions to curb this menace.

Dr Margaret Karembu Director of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications - Africa (ISAAA-Africenter) and convener of the symposium accepted Mr Linturi's challenge and promised that as scientists they will do everything in their capacity to share the right information with the public.

"Science has always been right. We are calling on politicians to be responsible with their words on biotechnology because there are people who have dedicated their time and energy to search for solutions to address problems brought by climate change and population growth," Dr Karembu.

She promised the CS that within three days, proposals from the deliberations at the symposium would be at his office.

On his part, former Agriculture Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga noted that Africa is facing serious challenges mostly historical that stand in its way of achieving food security and embracing innovative solutions like biotechnology is the only way to get out of this hole.

He cited issues like low-level mechanisation, poor agronomical practices, poor genetics, low adoption of technology and lack of finance for agriculture as some of the challenges.

To overcome such hurdles, he stated that Africa must rapidly embrace technology that disrupts agriculture like gene modification and gene editing.

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, genome editing is a method that lets scientists change the DNA of many organisms, including plants, bacteria, and animals.

ABBC was initiated in 2015 and has provided an African based African led platform for stakeholders to actively exchange experiences and address pressing communication issues in propelling biosciences innovations in the continent and globally.

The symposium which is running from August 22 to 24, aims at aligning communication approaches with advancements in new agricultural breeding tools for enhancing the contribution to sustainable food systems and plenary health. The forum was attended by stakeholders in the biotechnology space across Africa.