Last Friday, an advocacy group led tens of Kenyans through the streets of Nairobi advocating for the adoption of genetically modified organisms (GMO) technology in Kenya.
‘I have eaten GMO and I have not grown horns’ read one protester’s placard.
Known as RePlanet Africa, the organization holds the opinion that GMO technology is a scientific tool that would be good at alleviating hunger in the country.
“As a country, we are at a place where feeding ourselves is increasingly becoming difficult. Last year, between October and December of 2022, the number of Kenyans without access to food stood at 4.4 million, according to World Food Programme (WFP).
“The worsening food crisis has been blamed on climate change that resulted in three seasons of failed rains, rapid population growth and underperforming food systems,” said Timothy Machi, RePlanet Africa Representative in Kenya.
According to Dorrington Ogoyi, a professor of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at Technical University of Kenya, GMO technology involves the manipulation of DNA in an animal, plant, or microbe; to alter the genetic material using genetic engineering techniques.
“Usually, the desired outcome is either to improve on good aspects of a living thing or to neuter its bad aspects,” Ogoyi says.
The professor contends that GMO technology, in the larger food security discourse, is meant for good.
“The product of GMO technology is supposed to behave in a similar manner as its original non-GMO source, both in the environment and as food for humans and animals.
“The technology is therefore safe: especially considering that the law places several levels of checks before a GMO product can be released for public usage or consumption,” he says.
Daniel Magondu, a protester who doubled as a BT cotton farmer, from Kirinyaga, noted that he harvests 1,200kg to 1,500kg of cotton per acre.
“Conventional cotton gave me 500 to 700kg only on the same plot of land,” he said. “GMO technology will give farmers the opportunity to yield more with little and in the shortest time possible. We will have more money as income in our pockets. We should trust our scientists.”
Last October, President William Ruto lifted a ban on GMOs, which had been imposed in 2012 by the late President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet.
Through an executive order, the president pronounced that cultivation and importation of GMO maize was authorized forthwith.
“GMOs as products of science have the potential to revolutionize the way we produce food making it more efficient and sustainable,” says Machi.
The law established the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) – as the focal agency – to oversee processes involved in certifying GM products.
Dr. Roy Mugiira, NBA’s CEO, says the authority applies international protocols in ascertaining safety of GM products.
“We apply international treaties such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, to make sure that that which we allow into the public is safe for cultivation and consumption,” he said in a phone interview.
Mugiira says the process of certifying GM products involves eight government agencies; including Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Directorate of Veterinary Services (DVS), and Directorate of Public Health.
“By the time NBA is releasing a product, we are as sure as anyone can be, that the product is safe,” Mugiira says.
So far, the authority has officially given two products a thumbs up: BT Cotton (in 2020) and BT Maize (in 2022).
In November 2022, High Court Judge Mugure Thande issued a court order stopping ministries of Agriculture and Trade from allowing any GMO foods into the country until a petition filed by Kenya Peasants League is heard and determined.
A survey conducted by a non-governmental organisation, Route to Food Initiative, in 2021, showed that 57 per cent of Kenyans are opposed to GMOs.
Prof. Ogoyi says while GMOs are safe for consumption, they are not a silver bullet to the problem of drought and hunger.
“It is just one among many solutions that should be pursued to alleviate hunger and malnutrition,” he says.
As per Kenyan law, all GMO products will be labeled as such to enable consumers decide whether to use them or not.