Premium

Genetically-modified crops: Is the government pushing Kenya to food security or starvation?

Kenya's ban on GMO opens the door for the country to import GMO maize from as far as South Africa to feed its starving people. [Istockphoto]

Kenya has lifted the ban on genetically modified crops, ending a 10-year moratorium that has sharply divided scientists and policymakers on the safety of GMOs.

Many scientists have welcomed the move, describing it as “long overdue” and a panacea for the drought and hunger in the country. Over three million are at risk of starvation.

The Cabinet noted that it lifted the ban after consulting widely, talking to various experts and looking at technical reports on the adoption of biotechnology.

President William Ruto’s government hopes that this will increase the responses to the drought ravaging parts of the country.

There is biting hunger in 23 counties after rains failed for the last five consecutive seasons.

“In accordance with the recommendation of the Task Force to Review Matters Relating to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Safety, and in fidelity with the guidelines of the National Biosafety Authority on all applicable international treaties including the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), Cabinet vacated its earlier decision of November 8, 2012, prohibiting the open cultivation of genetically modified crops and the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations; effectively lifting the ban on Genetically Modified Crops,” read the statement.

“By dint of the executive action, open cultivation and importation of White (GMO) Maize is now authorised.”

This opens the door for the country to import GMO maize from as far as South Africa to feed its starving people.

But Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, a public policy think-tank, does not think there is enough window to import GMO maize unless traders are given an extension on waiver of import duty.

The decision was arrived at during a Cabinet meeting chaired by President William Ruto.

Kenya has been reluctant to approve the importation or planting of GMO crops due to safety concerns. Although GMOs are touted to have several advantages such as resistance to drought, pests, and realise higher yields, the safety question has been the biggest concern.

However, with the population growing faster than food production, policymakers have been scratching their heads on how the country can quickly boost its harvest of major crops such as maize, rice, cassava and wheat without resorting to tinkering with the genetic make-up of the seeds.

“Overall, good development and long overdue. Hopefully, this will raise our yields using less land,” said Elgon Kenya Ltd Managing Director Bimal Kantaria.

Murenga Mwimali, a maize breeder and coordinator at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), said the lifting of the ban was independent of the concerns people have against GMOs. Dr Mwimali has been one of the champions of GMOs.

“We have to find a way of addressing the concerns, we need to find a middle ground,” said Dr Mwimali.

He added: “We can’t be in a cocoon for the rest of our life and assume that we will just be okay.”

Some of the concerns that have been raised about GMOs are adverse effects such as transfer of antibiotic resistance, toxicity and allergenicity.​

“It is now upon the government to put in place policies and mechanisms to make sure GMO and conventional crops co-exist, said Dr Njagi.

“There has not been objective debate on GMOs, it has always been an emotional debate,” he added.

The fears about loss of indigenous seeds, Njagi noted, could be addressed by having a gene bag where all those indigenous seeds are stored.

He added that farmers can create a buffer where you grow GMOs and surround it with conventional crops.

GMO animal feeds would cost half the price of the conventional ones, saving farmers a lot of money, said Njagi.

With GMOs in place, experts insist that people should also be given a choice e.g. labelling so consumers know whether they are eating GMOs or organic foods.

“If consumers won’t eat GMOs, farmers will not grow them,” said Njagi.

Proponents insist that with close to 70 per cent of food consumed internationally being GMOs, there have been no notable side effects of these foods.

The decision to ban GMOs in 2012 was based on data that claimed they cause cancer.

Today’s decision follows an earlier Cabinet decision made on December 19 2019, regarding the commercialisation of Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) Cotton Hybrids in Kenya, which is a genetically enhanced variety of cotton that is resistant to African Bollworm, the most destructive and pervasive pest in cotton framing.

“The cotton one is very good as it will greatly improve our local textile companies which will be able to source cotton locally instead of importing it. This would increase our value addition in agriculture, which is the main goal,” said Bimal.

The earlier approval sought to revamp the production of textiles, apparel, feed and oil industries; all aimed toward the realisation of industrialisation. The Cabinet decision builds on it and also extends its benefits to other agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

“As part of the medium to long-term responses to the ongoing drought, and as a progressive step towards significantly redefining agriculture in Kenya by adopting crops that are resistant to pests and disease.”

In April, the US government slammed Kenya for its failure to approve imported genetically modified foods and crops, saying the measure is restricting its exports.

The US Trade Representative’s office (USTR) said in its annual report the approval by Kenya could boost agricultural purchases from the US which is the world’s biggest producer of GMO crops.

The ban, it said, restricted the sale of products from US companies, which has been seeking potential new markets.

“Kenya’s GMO ban has blocked US government food aid and agricultural exports derived from agricultural biotechnology,” the USTR said in its annual trade barriers list published in late March.

Experts agree that the lifting of the ban will go a long way in reducing the cost of animal feeds and reducing pressure on maize meant for human consumption.

Dr Stephen Mugo, Director at the Centre for Resilient agriculture for Africa (CRA-Africa), said that Kenya can now import GMO foods, which are many in the market.

GMO foods, he noted, are cheap because they are resistant to pests and drought. As result, they also have a higher yield.

More than 30 per cent of maize in the market is GMO, and allowing it into the country will go a long way in addressing the current food crisis.

“In future, Kenya can grow crops that are useful to farmers,” said Mugo.

The move, said Mugo, will also give Kenyan student learning about biotechnology, an opportunity to put into practice what they have been learning. Since 2012, they have been taught about biotechnology only to be told that they can’t produce and eat certain products.

More than 30 countries allow for production, importation and consumption within their borders.