BY KENNETH KWAMA
Players in the cereals and bulk storage sector are pushing to have the ban on genetically modified foods lifted to pave way for the importation of about 600,000 metric tonnes of maize to plug a deficit responsible for the rising price of the staple.
Concerns have also been raised that the ban of GMOs could prevent countries like the US, which has traditionally stepped in to supply Kenya with emergency food aid during drought or calamities like flooding, could be constrained by the decision.
Nairobi-based US agricultural office has warned that in its current form, the ban would prohibit the use of any form of future Corn-Soy Blend (CSB) food assistance to Kenya from the US. CSB is a common commodity used for emergency feeding programmes. Kenya is expected to spend Sh13.6 billion in the next two months to import about 600,000 metric tonnes of maize to boost the national stock and stop the price of key staples, including wheat products and rice from rising.
The increasing prices are threatening disastrous consequences for poor people who spend a large proportion of their income on food. “The unit cost of producing one kilogramme of genetically modified maize is much lower than that of conventionally grown foodstuff. The technology used to produce GMOs is the same one being used to make hybrid seeds.
Allowing the use of GMOs will help reduce the cost of food in the country. GMOs are food like any other and are being used in the developed world and there is no reason for us to ban their usage,” says Gerald Masila, Executive director at Eastern Africa Grain Council (EAGC).
The groups pushing for the lifting of the ban on GMOs include Africa Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum, African Agricultural Technology Foundation, and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
Biotechnology Trust Africa, Seed Trade Association of Kenya and the Cereal Millers Association are also involved in the endeavour. The lobbyists say that genetically modified maize will save the Exchequer about 20 per cent (Sh2.7 billion) of the money to be used to import the maize.
Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia are likely to supply the conventionally grown maize to fill in for the shortfall because of the import ban and the 50 per cent value added tariff levied on maize from countries outside the East African Community (EAC) and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) trade blocs.
“Implications of the ban are significant for Kenya. The decision will further hinder Kenya’s investment in GM technology to modernise its agricultural production, which was already hampered by strict liability regulations based on its 2009 law.
Shipments to and through the port of Mombasa, already hampered by GM rules, will be halted. Kenya will need to source its structural corn deficit (which was about 300,000 metric tonnes in 2011) from only non-GM producers,” states the US agricultural office in a report titled: Kenya Bans Imports of Genetically Modified Foods.
The US body says that the ban undermines Kenya’s legal and regulatory system for agricultural biotechnology codified in its National Biosafety Act of 2009.
Former minister for Public Health, Beth Mugo, presented concerns about the safety of GM foods to a cabinet meeting chaired by former President Mwai Kibaki a few months ago and recommended an immediate ban on GM imports and products citing a study released by a French university in September 2012 that linked cancer in rats to the consumption of GM foods.
Those pushing for the lifting of the ban on GM foods say that Mugo did not consult the National Biosafety Authority about the proposal or ban. The also argue that the Ministry of Higher Education Science and Technology, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade were not consulted before the Cabinet meeting that arrived at the decision to ban importation of GM foods.
The ban on GM foods was necessitated by the findings of a research carried out by a French professor — Gilles-Eric Séralini who released a report linking the development of cancerous tumours in rats to consumption of GM maize.
Local stakeholders fighting for the lifting of the ban say the study by the French professor has been used to propagate negative publicity against GMOs.
“GMOs have been commercialised for food, feed and planting for the last 16 years with no adverse effects on human and animal health and the environment” says Kennedy Oyugi, Senior Programmes Officer at African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF). “A total of 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries worldwide have adopted GM crops, so the findings of this two year study go against a long history of safety and high uptake rates of GM crops,” he says.
According to the ABSF, a number of credible bodies – the European Food Safety Authority included, and various renowned scientists have reviewed the study and have uniformly criticised its objectives, flawed methodology and weak research design.