Lifting GMO ban is not a solution to end food crisis, experts advise

Farmers sorting maize before shelling at Wei Wei irrigation scheme in Sigor, West Pokot County. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

Food security experts and activists have condemned the move by the government to lift the ban on genetically modified crops. 

They pegged their disgruntlement on the lack of public participation provided by the constitution and further, expressed socioeconomic and public deception concerns. 

They also questioned the capacity of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to regulate Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) effectively.

Anne Maina, a biosafety and risk assessment expert from the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, questioned the rush decision to lift the ban, citing a lack of public participation as provided by the Constitution on a very “paramount basic right (food) that has the potential to affect every Kenyan.” 

She cited the Thairu Taskforce of 2013 commissioned by The Ministry of Health 10 years ago to audit Kenya’s capacity to handle GMOs. “Why hasn’t a similar task force been created before lifting this ban?” asked Maina. 

Maina said that Kenya has survived without GMOs for years. “Any deficit, averaging 10-15 million bags a year, has always been supplemented through trade with neighbouring countries, such as Tanzania and Uganda, that are GMO-free,” she said.

Emmanuel Atamba, a food and farming systems expert from the Route to Food organisation, said GMO farming would open the market to US farmers. 

He said GMOs depend on highly sophisticated technology and highly subsidised farming, which could disadvantage local farmers. 

Atamba said Kenya would also heavily depend on western technology for seed imports since GMO seeds cannot be replanted.

 He noted GMO seeds are expensive and controlled by a handful of companies, adding that neighbouring countries trading with Kenya will also not favourably compete with US maize farmers. 

“Agriculture is the mainstay for over 60 per cent of Kenyans. Will they match up to imports from the USA?” he asked, and called for efforts to safeguard local farmers’ livelihoods and economic interests.

He urged Kenyan farmers to hold on and take care of their indigenous grain. “GMO grain is vulnerable to market and global supply shocks and could contaminate indigenous seeds, which could cause severe food insecurity should they disappear or become too expensive,” he said. 

Atamba cited the Covid pandemic when export barriers and closed borders were implemented to prevent cross-border infections.

“The Covid pandemic demonstrated the need to embrace local production and consumption. What would’ve happened to Kenyans if we depended on seed imports during that period?” he asked.

Alice Kemunto, of the Consumer Grassroots Association, said that GMOs are relatively new technology (the first GM crop was produced 30 years ago), and there’s a need to safeguard farmers and consumers in the event of crop failures. 

“GMO technology is prone to failure and malfunction, as has been witnessed in Burkina Faso and India. The mechanism for redress/ compensation in the event of failure or negative effects must be put in place to safeguard the livelihoods of consumers and farmers,” said Kemunto.

According to a report by India-based Navdanya International, a biodiversity conservation organisation, in less than two decades after GMO millet and Bt cotton were introduced in India, indigenous varieties were depleted completely.

This forced farmers to grow monocultures of Bt cotton, and the price of cotton seeds has since ballooned. The cost of fertilisers and pesticides spiked too, both of which had to be purchased with the seeds. Still, the GMO variety did not prove to be the magic bullet against pests, climate change, and drought. 

The report indicates that the Bt cotton growing regions in India were sucked into a vicious cycle of bank debts to finance the costly seeds and chemicals, which promised high yields and pest management. 

“Bt cotton growing regions in India were sucked into a vicious cycle of debts and suicides,” the report says. “400,000 more farmers suicides have been recorded across India since. As of November 2021, there were 1056 suicide cases of farmers recorded from western Vidarbha alone.”

Atamba, who has studied Biotechnology, said that government institutions misinformed Kenyans about the attributes of GMO crops. 

The government had earlier said that Bt maize is early maturing, climate resistant, high yielding, eliminates pesticide use, and bears more nutritional benefits. These solutions, Atamba noted, could be possible without monopolising Agriculture.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences report revealed that “there was little evidence” that introducing genetically modified crops in the US had led to more yield gains beyond conventional crops.

“Kenya’s food insecurity is not caused by a seed problem. We have various seeds, with different nutritional benefits, tastes, and characteristics. Those indigenous varieties will be threatened by the introduction of GMO seeds,” said Claire Nasike, an environmental scientist.

Nasike referred to post-harvest waste in the past, where farmers have had to throw away cabbages, tomatoes, potatoes, fruit, and milk because of a lack of proper roads and market regulation. 

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, Kenya throws away 40 per cent of its food (5 217 367 tonnes). “Tomatoes, fruits, pulses, meat, milk and vegetables can be dried or canned to be used at a different time or place,” said Richard Lackey of the World Food Bank.

“Kenya’s solution to food insecurity is caused by a lack of proper structures and infrastructure. We need to invest in water harvesting systems to enable irrigation, roads to transport food to regions that don’t yield much, and invest in proper food storage and processing systems,” said Nasike.

Lobbyists demanded that the ban be reinstated until public participation is observed as enshrined in the Constitution.

The experts called on the government to fund local GMO research institutions and regulatory bodies to ensure biosafety policies and regulations and carry out rigorous risk and food safety assessments.

 “It is possible to grow a variety of rich foods without harming the environment and annihilating our indigenous seeds, which we must protect as envisaged in Article 11(3)b of the constitution,” said Nasike.

“Knee-jerk reactions to structural food system challenges will not work.”

The Standard
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