GMOs, an Ally for sustainable food production in the face of climate change

Scientists think the controversy around GMOs has been muddled up with a debate about corporate industrial agriculture. [iStockphoto]

Scientists have called for changing the narrative of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in the face of climate change.

Without science and technology, food security in Africa remains a mirage, says African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) Executive Director Dr Canisius Kanangire.

Dr Kanangire who stated this while in a meeting with the scientific community, said science and technology is one area where Africa is not doing well, and farmers are frustrated due to the nature of farming which has been hectic.

New technologies can help food systems become more sustainable and efficient. WTO indicates that the Agricultural sector has fallen short in adopting technology compared to other sectors like the ICT.

Dr Kanangire noted investments in modern agricultural technologies can cut farmers' losses and prevent diseases while increasing resilience against climate variability and guaranteeing an adequate return on investment.

“For example, the farmers in the United States look at a scientist to provide the needs of addressing challenges and trust that they will do so whereas in Africa, the mindset of the farmer is different. And because of this, the adoption of science technologies and innovation in agriculture is down, therefore, production is also down,” said Kanangire.

He added: “Science can really be a very important solution to challenges we have today. We need to change our mindset.”

Sustainable deployment of agricultural technologies depends on several factors including relevance, cost effectiveness and an enabling policy environment that bring actors to correctly identify the benefits and build effective partnerships.

“We have worked with the government of Kenya and local partners to explore commercialization pathways and come up with hybrid rice varieties, and stem borer resistant maize varieties whichwill significantly reduce farmers losses,” Kanangire said.

A lot of opportunities have emerged in modern technology especially in stem borer-resistant maize and gene editing that hold the potential to transform agriculture.

And while environmental decline goes on, the world's population keeps growing. The UN predicts the world population will reach 10 billion by 2057. This raises the question: how do we increase food production by 50 per cent while mitigating the catastrophes of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis?

Genetically modified food remains controversial, even more specifically in Kenya. However experts say it is the best science-based method for a sustainable global food system amid biodiversity loss and a rising world population.

Chairman Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium (KUBICO) and Registrar Research at Kenyatta University Prof Richard Oduor we have allowed very interesting beliefs which have derailed the adoption of GMOs. The narrative that GMOs cause cancer, fertility issues and making crops and livestock extraordinarily big is false.

“If GMO can create impotence, you will not afford it, because we will wrap it and sell it as a drug. We need to communicate our narrative in a way that we are not being confused to the extent people create their own interpretation of how GMOs are developed,” said Oduor.

According to Oduor, everyone wants to produce more food from less area and with less chemical pesticides, and with less fertilizer. If you are able to [use gene technologies to] develop plants that are more tolerant and more resistant, it is a good thing.

“We are living in a time that there is climate change. This means that the things that are alive would want to adjust so that they survive. If something an insect was eating has been affected by climate change, it must also start eating other crops it originally was not interested in, that means, things are happening,” Oduor said.

Dr Martin Mwirigi, Institute Director, Biotechnology Research Institute, KALRO, notes that gene editing technology has also helped save crop production from drought and disease, all over the world. In the late 20th century, the papaya ringspot virus almost wiped out papaya crops in Hawaii, but a local scientist developed a modified papaya that was resistant to the virus. Seeds were distributed to farmers, saving papaya production a decade later.

“When we talk about GMO, the impression or the picture printed is of something being injected with some chemical, which is not true. If we are allowed to explain further, you will be amazed that what you thought was dangerous is actually not bad,” said Mwirigi.

And yet, many people find the idea of GM foods hard to swallow. A 2022 online opinion poll showed that 50 per cent of respondents who took part in the survey perceived GM foods as unsafe.

According to Mwirigi, it is not possible in any country to start using GMOs without going through extensive regulatory requirements.

“By the time it is taken to the field and commercial approval, it has gone through a long history of development, especially looking at the risks,” he said.

The scientists think the controversy around GMOs has been muddled up with a debate about corporate industrial agriculture. The specter of Monsanto still hangs over the industry. There are concerns of big corporate interests from companies like Monsanto, which promote more pesticides and mono-cultures and wrong forms of agriculture.

In Kenya, several GM foods have gone through the required steps to get them released to the market but they have been riddled with court cases, stalling the whole process.

Data from the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) shows that four varieties of GM cotton have been released and are being grown by farmers. They need to go through Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS) testing for plant variety protection.

Six GM cotton varieties have undergone both National Performance Trials [NPT] and DUS but have not been released due to a pending court case.

Three varieties of BT Maize have been recommended for release but are yet to be presented to the NVRC for consideration for release due to a pending court case.

Eight varieties of GM Cassava are currently under NPT.

KEPHIS has facilitated the importation of certified GM Cotton seeds for use by farmers.

Development of seed certification protocol for Bt maize, GM cassava and Bt cotton is complete.

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