Defining moment as Kenyans await Cabinet’s GMO verdict

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation officials inspect Genetically Modified cassava at their Mtwapa station in September last year. Such crops are better suited to fight common diseases that compromise yields. [File, Standard]

The Japanese have a popular saying: there is no such thing as bad food when you are really hungry.

It is an idiom the Kenyan Government seems to be taking a cue from as it inches closer to lifting the ban on importation of the controversial Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The Cabinet is over the next two months expected to give the defining verdict on whether to lift the ban on GMOs that was imposed in 2012 following a controversial study that alleged GMOs cause cancer.

All indications are that the Cabinet is likely to give the nod to the controversial technology as the country grapples with continued perennial food shortage.

Not too long ago, a section of the Kenyan population was dying of hunger as the long rains delayed.

This even as the Jubilee administration fed them with the narrative of how it would ensure that every citizen has access to adequate and nutritious food by 2022 as part of its Big Four agenda. But as, they say, ‘wait’ is a hard word to the hungry.

Perhaps fearing for a situation where procrastination could catalyse this hunger into anger, the Government has slowly but surely been back-tracking on its 2012 pledge not to tolerate GM foods.

According to the World Health Organisation, which has given GM foods in the market a clean bill of health, they are derived from organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally.

For example, scientists might introduce a gene from a cow into maize to improve the latter’s resistance to certain diseases.

The Government’s decision to drop its hard-line stance on GMO foods has reignited the fierce debate that has for the longest time divided the country.

Proponents of GMO foods insist that with better regulation, they can help the country attain the elusive food security in terms of availability, accessibility and safety of food.

Its opponents, on the other hand, insist that there is a need to balance between increased productivity of foods and their safety.

They maintain that there are still no reliable studies showing that GM foods will not adversely affect human health, the environment and animals.

Layla Liebetrou, project lead of the Route to Food Initiative, a civil society group that is pushing for access to safe food, says it is unfortunate how pro-GMO scientists, politicians and companies are gradually winning over a good number of consumers.

“Yet, a lot of Kenyans do not even know what GMO stands for. But they are cool with it,” says Layla.

Opponents of GM foods, such as Layla, would rather contend with the unknown rather than be adventurous with it.

“We are opposed to the Government lifting the ban on GMOs for two main reasons. Firstly, because an objective discussion on the technology has not been facilitated and not included all Kenyans. Secondly, because the biosafety regulations do not cater for redress should the technology fail our farmers or cause harm to consumers,” explains Layla.

Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, a think-tank affiliated to Egerton University, insists that for a country that has been grappling with climate change with the rains getting more erratic, lifting the ban on GMO could be good for the country.

“But we need to ensure safeguards are in place and monitoring systems are functional,” says Njagi who is an agricultural economist.

However, when this writer talked to a senior government official in the State Department of Planning on whether or not the adoption of GM foods was part of President Kenyatta’s bigger agenda of shoring up food security and nutrition recently, he was categorical that there was no need for such a move.

He said the Government was working on land-intensification.