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Politics of maize is historical and GMO debate isn't about to let it die

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The debate on the importation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) has once again sparked the controversial politics of maize. 

Azimio and a section of Kenya Kwanza Alliance (KKA) legislators have closed ranks in criticising the quick decision to import maize, which seemingly overlooks thousands of farmers who have started harvesting.

Last week, Trade, Investment and Industrialisation Cabinet Moses Kuria announced that he would allow importation of duty-free maize, including 10 million bags of genetically modified produce.

It is ironical that after President William Ruto spent Sh3.6 billion to provide subsidised fertiliser to farmers to boost production and bring down food prices, the government now plans to import maize at a time farmers are harvesting.

Even though the subsidised fertiliser may not have been used in this season, the impending imports have raised fears of introducing a glut in the market.

“We must reduce the cost of living, I told you we will bring down the prices of maize floor and we have begun the journey. We have given our farmers 1.5 million bags of fertiliser and we will give them six million more so that they can produce maize,” said President William Ruto last month.

The issue of maize and politics has been cyclic.

Just before the August 2022 General Election, President Uhuru Kenyatta, caught up in the rising prices of unga in an electioneering period, introduced a subsidy to reduce prices.

The price of a two kilo packet of maize flour had gone up to Sh230, but President Kenyatta used the subsidy to cut it to Sh100.

In 2017 and 2012 the moves were no different. In May 2017, in the heat of the campaigns for the General Election in which President Kenyatta was seeking re-election, the Jubilee government, where Ruto was the deputy president, cut down the prices of flour from Sh190 to Sh90 for a 2kg packet, a move that cost Sh8.5 billion.

In July 2012, the run-up to the March 2013 elections, the price of a two-kilogramme packet of mazie flour shot up from Sh70 to Sh130, and a subsidy was introduced to reduce the price to Sh100.

The liftting of the ban on GMO foods put in place by Mwai Kibaki’s administration has introduced a new dynamic into the politics of maize.

On Sunday, opposition leader Raila Odinga called for an immediate stop to the importation of GMO maize.

The debate has increasingly taken a political tone, with politicians from maize-producing regions in Kenya totally against any imports.

Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei and Kesses MP Julius Ruto, who spoke separately, said the government should shelve plans to import the produce to curb glut.

“As a leader from a maize growing region, I think it is wise that the Trade ministry should hold on any importation of maize until we have completed harvesting, and National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) opened its stores and set prices,” said Cherargei.

The senator said farmers spent as high as Sh7,000 to produce a 50kg bag among other operational costs, including fuel, in the current season and they should be allowed to market produce in the prevailing market situation before flooding it with imported produce.

Cherargei said announcement of planned importation “is in bad faith”, adding that the government has not started buying farmers’ produce through NCPB. 

“The danger of allowing importation when farmers are harvesting is that it will lower prices and leave producers at the mercy of rogue millers and individuals who want to take advantage of the situation,” he said.

Ruto said the current administration was elected on a promise of addressing the plight of farmers and it should stick to its pledge.

“We came from a time when farmers had been abandoned by the past regimes to the mercy of cartels. I am against any move to import produce when local harvests have not been exhausted,” he said.

“We should cushion local farmers and in case of need to import, the ministry should make recommendations through the National Assembly.”

The sentiments by leaders came as protesting farmers were planning to convene a meeting this week to deliberate on the market for their produce.

“It is a total mess to import maize as farmers harvest their crop. Current season was conducive and if there will be shortages of food, it will be minimal. The timing for importation is not correct,” said Kipkorir Menjo, the North Rift Kenya Farmers Association (KFA) director.

Menjo said they have reached out to stakeholders, including farmers’ representatives, cooperatives and Kenya National Farmers Federation (Kenaff) for a meeting this week, from where they will issue a statement.  

Joab Kosgei, a farmer from Moiben, said current maize prices stand at Sh5,500 per 90kg bag, adding that they spent so much on inputs and should be allowed to make returns. 

“Making imports when farmers are harvesting is demoralising. The government should give priority to locally produced food,” said Kosgei, who added that the government should set maize producer prices at Sh5,000 per bag and open NCPB stores for supplies.

Tom Nyagechaga, the representative Kenaff in Trans Nzoia, said allowing importation of GMO and non-GMO maize is an insult to farmers. “We expected the government to procure all the maize we have at good price and distribute to starving Kenyans,” he said.

When making the announcement last week, Kuria said the importation of GMO and non-GMO mazie for six months would pull Kenya out of one of its worst food crises yet.

However, yesterday, the CS seemed to beat an about-turn on the availability of maize in the country, instead accusing farmers of hoarding 20 million bags.

“It is estimated that farmers are sitting on 20 million bags of maize. Let them release it to the millers. You can call me if no miller is buying your maize,” he tweeted.

Kuria said farmers are also expected to harvest 35 million bags of maize in the next two weeks.

“Urgently deliver that to the millers so they will not need to import,” he tweeted.

Kuria said the importation of maize will only be by the millers and not the government as had been in the past. “The gazette notice we will release today will open up the market to Millers and anyone to import Maize duty-free for 6 months. The government will not import any Maize.”

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, each Kenyan consumes a bag of maize every year. Therefore, going by Kuria’s estimated harvest of 35 million bags in the next two weeks, it means the country could have enough maize to last up to July nest year.

[Report by Jacob Ng’etich, Titus Too and Osinde Obare]