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Despite mistrust, GM foods gaining momentum in Kenya

By Fredrick Obura and Dan Okoth | September 14th 2015 at 09:55:15 GMT +0300

NAIROBI, KENYA: Are Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs the panacea for food security and poverty alleviation in the country?

A new study shows poorer countries are growing GMOs to their benefit, while controversy continues over the technology in Kenya.

A new report released by the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) claims that some developing countries have surpassed industrialised nations in growing Genetically Modified (GM) crops, contributing to food security and poverty alleviation in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions.

It says developing nations planted 52 per cent of the global biotech crops in 2012, up from 50 per cent a year earlier and above the 48 per cent industrial countries grew in 2011.

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GMOS are organisms whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are also widely used in scientific research to produce goods other than food.

In Kenya, a government ban on importation and consumption of GMOs has thrown the technology in the country in disarray even though Kenya is considered the most technologically advanced in the region on issues of biotechnology.

According to Dr Margaret Karembu, the Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, Kenya is currently conducting or has completed confined field trials on cassava, cotton, maize, sorghum and sweet potato.

She says in late 2014, the genetically altered maize variety that led to the ban of genetically modified organisms (GMO) food imports in Kenya has been harvested at a research facility in Lower Eastern region. 

“A crop of the GM maize was harvested in November at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Kiboko facility, in the ongoing trials to establish the suitability of the crop in Kenya,” she notes.

According to one of the senior scientists involved in the project, Dr Stephen Mugo, the maize also refered to as the MON810 trait contains a gene that makes it insect and drought-tolerant.

The current harvest, he told the media, was the third time they were testing this gene in maize locally. "We were specifically testing its drought-stress tolerance and its resistance to stem borers that cause about 15 per cent maize damage globally and 17 per cent in Kenya." Mr Mugo says they still have more work to do before they can apply to the NBA to put the seeds in the market.  

Speaking during the 4th National Biosafety Conference at the Kenya School of Monetary Studies (KSMS) Nairobi, the Deputy President William Ruto challenged Kenyan researchers to create awareness on use of technology in food production to boost Kenya’s food demand.

He said Kenya has made a bold decision to embrace modern biotechnology Policy and enacting Biosafety Act of 2009.

The Act established the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to regulate all activities involving Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food, feed, research, industry, trade and environmental releases.

Mr Ruto said the government will fully support the authority to achieve its mandate.

“I want to challenge the Bio-Safety Authority to develop a bold public awareness campaign to make the country aware of what you are doing and why it’s important and how it affects people’s lives,” he said.

Mr Ruto said lack of public awareness has led to fear of biotechnology.

“When people hear anything scientific, they develop fear, they cringe, so it is our duty to overturn this unfounded fear,” said Mr Ruto.

He said the public must embrace science because it is what is going to lead to more future advancement.

“Science and technology is what will take us to the next level so we should not fear. Confound your critics now,” he said while asking the authority to make its work known.

He added that all the line ministries had been consulted and agreed that biotechnology is the way to the future and all the necessary laws will be put in place.

He said Kenya made a bold decision to embrace modern biotechnology as attested to by the signing of Cartagena Protocol, Biotechnology Policy and Enacting Biosafety Act in 2009.

The Deputy President said a lot has been achieved since the enactment of the Biosafety Act and similarly had been taken to ensure that genetic engineering technology is implemented safely.

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