Decades and depths of research Kenya has invested to develop GMO

A farmhand sprays pesticides in a maize field at Kisii Agricultural Training Centre, to guard against fall armyworm attack. Researchers say embracing GM maize will help farmers eliminate the need for using pesticides. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

"Would you plant genetically modified maize seeds if given by the government?" I asked my mother and fellow smallholder farmers in my village in Bondo, Siaya County. The answer was a straight "No".

"Why?" I prodded.

"Because we were told by politicians those things are harmful. The government just wants to import bad things to kill us," one elderly man retorted.

The response by the farmers is not isolated.

Across the country, people have formed a negative attitude towards genetically modified organisms (GMO) based on unfounded claims that have been thrown around by politicians. Most Kenyans would rather sleep hungry than eat GM crops.

Researchers, on the other hand, are determined to fight this misinformation, saying biotechnology offers more good than harm to a food insecure country like Kenya.

The development of biotechnology in Kenya has taken several years of work, involving all major stakeholders nationally and internationally.

To shed more light on Kenya's journey in biotechnology, FarmKenya had an in-depth interview with Dr Martin Mwirigi, the Director of Biotechnology Research Institute at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro).

Dr Martin Mwirigi, the Director of Biotechnology Research Institute during the interview in Muguga, Kiambu County. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Kalro is the body tasked to conduct agricultural research through the application of science, technology, and innovation.

From Intern to Director

Dr Mwirigi has grown with the technology, having started at the Kalro (then called Kari) biotechnology centre as an intern and risen through the ranks over the years to a director.

"I was the first student on internship at Kari Biotech Centre in Kabete. The centre was carrying out research on tissue culture and there was a lot of biotechnology on development of livestock vaccines. That was in 1996," says Dr Mwirigi whose specialty is livestock vaccines development.

To streamline its operations and avoid duplicity of roles, in 2013, Kari was merged with Coffee Research Foundation, Tea Research Foundation and the Kenya Sugar Research Foundation (Kesref) to form Kalro.

Under Kalro, there are 17 research institutes, including the Biotechnology Research Institute, which Dr Mwirigi heads.

To promote its research work, Kalro is guided by the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI), a successor of the National Council for Science and Technology.

With the institutional transformations, the organisation was gearing towards deeper research in the world of biotechnology.

What is biotechnology?

For starters, biotechnology is the use of biology to develop new products, methods and organisms intended to improve human health and society.

According to experts, a GMO is an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through biotechnology in a way that does not occur naturally by multiplication and/or natural recombination. Cloned animals are included within this definition.

A maize plantation in Uasin Gishu County. Our good old maize has gone through years of breeding that started with the dwarf variety with low yields to the current ones that are bigger and high-yielding, thanks to biotechnology. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

Dr Mwirigi explains that GM foods are produced from organisms whose genetic material has been changed by introducing the gene of a different organism through a process called genetic engineering.

Natural breeding started with our ancestors

To break down the science behind biotechnology, Dr Mwirigi walks us through the journey, step by step from around 8000 BC.

"Genetic modification through natural process started a long time ago. Biotechnology is basically trying to use what happens naturally and fast-track it. Genes are made of building blocks, which are the same in all living things," the researcher explains.

"Back then, they used to improve the breeds through breeding. Our ancestors would spot the animals with the best traits and use them for breeding. They did that over the years to get the best breeds to rear and multiply."

Early dwarf maize

Our good old maize has also gone through years of breeding that started with the dwarf variety with low yields to the current ones that are bigger and high yielding.

"In the history of maize, the original version was significantly smaller but, thanks to natural selection and conventional breeding, productivity is huge. There is a genetic modification happening every time there's an improvement in traits. Traits are inherent in the genetic makeup," Dr Mwirigi says.

From web sources, the earliest maize plants grew only small, 25-millimetre-long corn ears, and only one per plant.

Respected professor of history, Jackson Spielvogel, says many centuries of artificial selection (rather than the current view that maize was exploited by interplanting with teosinte) by the indigenous people of the Americas resulted in the development of maize capable of growing several ears per plant, which were usually several centimetres/inches long.

Why biotechnology is important

With that historical background, researchers were able to borrow from the indigenous knowledge as they sought solutions for global issues that affect humankind linked to population growth and changing climatic conditions.

Kalro Director General Eliud Kireger concurs that climate change and severity of drought, and the emergence of new pests such as the fall armyworm and maize stalk borer, and diseases such as Maize Lethal Necrosis pose a real threat to food, feed, and nutritional security. This calls for more innovative solutions like biotechnology.

"These insect pests are very expensive to control, with farmers spending up to Sh12,000 per acre on pesticides alone. These pesticides are also harmful to human health and the environment, especially water," points out Dr Kireger.

"We lose about 13 million (90kg) bags of maize valued at Sh32.5 billion annually to stalk borers alone. Maize borers attack also increases aflatoxin contamination, which is a health hazard," Dr Kireger adds.

Challenge of maize stem borers

Dr Mwirigi agrees that 10-15 years ago there were no stubborn crop pests like stem borers that cause huge losses to maize farmers.

"Our grandparents did not face issues like stem borer attacking their maize. If the farms were hit by pests, they would use simple solutions like spraying ash on the crops and it worked.

"And yes, you can use ash to control stem borer in your small farm but just imagine if you are a large-scale farmer and the pests attack; ash is not sustainable nor practical. You are forced to use expensive pesticides to protect your maize," says the researcher.

With these new challenges facing farmers in their quest to produce more food to feed the growing population, technology has to change and that is what led researchers to make inroads towards the development of Bt maize.

So what is the science behind Bt maize?

For clarity, Bt maize is genetically engineered to express insecticidal proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.

Better still, online journals explain that bacillus thuringiensis is a species of bacteria that produces proteins that are toxic to certain insects.

To break down that science, Dr Mwirigi starts from the basics of biology.

"The gene is the basic unit of inheritance. When you use a microscope, you will note that our genetic makeup is made of chromosomes."

According to web sources, a chromosome is a long DNA molecule with part or all of the genetic material of an organism; a threadlike structure of nucleic acids and protein found in the nucleus of most living cells, carrying genetic information in the form of genes.

What does a chromosome do?

Scientists say the most important function of chromosomes is to carry the basic genetic material - DNA.

According to, genes are passed from parents to offspring and contain the information needed to specify physical and biological traits. Most genes code for specific proteins, or segments of proteins, which have differing functions within the body.

The existence of discrete inheritable units was first suggested by Gregor Mendel, a German Czech biologist.

It is reported that from 1857 to 1864, Mendel studied inheritance patterns in 8,000 common edible pea plants, tracking distinct traits from parent to offspring.

Although he did not use the term gene, he explained his results in terms of discrete inherited units that give rise to observable physical characteristics.

According to Dr Mwirigi, these same principles of how a gene operates in a human manifest in all living things. This same gene principle is how the Bt maize was developed.

"Bt bacteria are abundant in the soil. We eat it on a normal day. Bt bacterial feed on larvae stage of stem borer. Scientists understood that mechanism, that the bacteria is toxic to stem borer. To solve that issue, they took a small portion of the gene from the bacteria and inserted in maize. That is how we develop Bt maize, which is resistant to stem borer attack," Dr Mwirigi explains.

Safety and ethical concerns

With such editing and inserting of a bacterial gene into maize, the question that arises is, is that maize is safe for human consumption?

Will the same bacteria that kills stem borer kill humans when they eat the maize?

Dr Mwirigi's answer is a firm "No".

"First from history and research, this is bacteria that humans have encountered before because it is in the soil and its larvae have no receptor in the human gene."

Does it cause allergies in humans?

Biochemists explain that proteins that cause allergy in humans have certain characteristics and this Bt protein has no such specifics.

Rigorous regulatory processes

More assuring, to guide the development and safe administration of GMO foods in Kenya, the government developed the biotech policy in 2006.

This later led to the establishment of Biotechnology Act in 2009 which led to the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) in 2010.

The National Biosafety Authority, a State corporation, is tasked to ensure the safety to human and animal health and provide adequate protection of the environment from harmful effects that may result from genetically modified organisms.

In addition to NBA, there are other regulatory agencies that must approve the cultivation and consumption of GM products in the country.

First, there is the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), a government parastatal whose responsibility is to assure the quality of agricultural inputs and produce.

To guarantee safety standards, before GMOs are released to the public, they have to go through rigorous national performance trials conducted by Kephis.

To further tighten the regulatory noose on biotechnology, there is the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), established as the principal instrument of Government for the implementation of all policies relating to the environment.

Further, there is the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), a government regulatory body under the Ministry of Trade and Industrialisation mandated to prepare standards relating to products in Kenya.

Stringent global standards

There are also global safety standards led by a joint FAO/WHO ad hoc committee that has developed guidelines on risk assessment on food allergens - proteins in food that trigger allergic reactions. GMOs are assumed to cause such reactions.

With all these checks and balances guiding the development of GMOs in Kenya, researchers agree that these are the safest foods to consume.

Given the depth of research that has gone into GM crops, it was a sigh of relief for researchers when President William Ruto lifted a 10-year ban on GMOs in Kenya.

Last October, less than a month into his presidency, President Ruto announced the lifting of the ban, saying the move will help address food insecurity at a time when more than 4.1 million Kenyans are facing hunger.

In 2012, Kenya's Cabinet banned the importation of GM maize, following a controversial study led by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini that linked the consumption of GM foods to cancer in rats.

Dr Mwirigi clarifies that the study was later debunked by further European research.

Back to Research

But in a fresh twist, in November last year, High Court Justice Mugure Thande suspended the importation of GMO crops and food into the country after two parties filed lawsuits.

The two lawsuits are by Paul Mwangi, the lawyer of opposition leader Raila Odinga, and Peasants League, a lobby representing small-scale farmers.

The League argued that the decision by the government to lift the GMO ban was not procedural and was unlawful, adding that imported GMO foods posed a health risk to Kenyans.

Attorney General Justin Muturi, the National Biosafety Authority, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade moved to the Court of Appeal after Justice Mugure barred the government from importing GMOs to cushion Kenyans from food shortage.

However, at the Court of Appeal, Justices Mohamed Warsame, Abida Ali-Aroni and John Mativo unanimously agreed that the AG had not convinced them that Kenyans will suffer if the orders issued by the High Court are not lifted.

As Kenya awaits the Supreme Court ruling on the issue, researchers have gone back to their safe space and familiar territory, the laboratories for more research, because that is what they know best.

As for my mother, a retired teacher, and her neighbour farmers who are fearful of GM maize seeds, I hope this quells their fears that biotechnology is not a matter of guesswork, but years of deep science, borrowed from the knowledge that even our ancestors practised unknowingly.

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