Making case for genetically modified foods

Kenya will soon lift the ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), wedging the gates of GMO acceptance a bit wider in the region.

Kenya will soon lift the ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), wedging the gates of GMO acceptance a bit wider in the region.

During the country’s 4th National Biosafety Conference last month, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto announced that the waiver would come “in a month or two”.

If it starts in Kenya, it is bound to follow in the other EAC member states.

Coincidentally, the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) has just completed advertisement for a “consultancy for the preparation of the 3rd National Report on the Implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in Rwanda”.

Globally adopted in 2000 in Montreal, Canada, the Cartagena Protocol aims to provide adequate protection in the safe transfer, handling and use of living biotechnologically modified organisms that may have adverse effects – either on people or the environment.

It aims at the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Rwanda ratified the protocol in 2003.

However, for now, as we await Rwanda’s Cartagena Protocol implementation report, the story is on Kenya.

And, looking at the numbers and examples in places such as South Africa, the argument for the lifting of the GMO ban is persuasive.

Kenya has been witnessing a decline in maize productivity in the last three years against a growing population. Maize is the country’s staple food.

In 2013, the country produced 31.6 million bags down from 39.7 million bags in 2011 against a target of 40 million.

Genetically modified maize could double the country’s productivity. Kenyan biotechnology (BT) scientists say water efficient BT maize has the potential to yield 3.7 tonnes of per hectare.

The country produces an average of 1.6 tonnes per hectare compared to the global average of five tonnes on a similar parcel of land.

Adopting the technology could reduce costs of fertiliser by eliminating the infestation of the stem borer, saving Kenya up to Sh7.4 billion every year.

Biotechnology involves safely altering the genetic make-up of an organism, including seeds, using the DNA of other organisms such as bacteria and other seeds, to enhance the qualities of the altered seed.

BT maize trials results in Kenya have shown that it can stop the pests that are blamed for declining yields by up to 400,000 tonnes annually, the same amount of maize the country imports during shortages every year.

South Africa is among the leading nations in biotech food globally. After introducing BT maize in 2012, the country realised a net yield of 9.5 per cent, equivalent to $213 million.

South Africa has at least 2.9 million hectares of land under genetically modified crops, 86 per cent of maize and 92 per cent of soybean. 100 per cent of cotton grown in the country is genetically modified.

And there’s local and international market for it. The EU has an authorised list for the importation of 58 genetically modified crops including GM maize, soya, oilseed rape, sugar beet and cotton.

So, why not Kenya, which also has several BT field trials on potatoes and bananas? Other countries engaged in BT cultivation include Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Spain and Portugal.

There have been concerns, however, mainly about the health effects of GMO foods.

The concerns specifically relate to a controversial study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini, often quoted for the claims it made linking BT products to cancer following trials with rats.

The Seralini paper has since been recanted after it was established to not have adhered to internationally accepted standards for research.

Also, note that GMOs have been on the market since 1996, meaning that “if all GMOs were an immediate health threat, we would know it by now.”

The pros and cons of GMOs remain a subject of intense scientific and moral debate.

Without throwing caution to the winds, as has been pointed out, the science behind genetically modified food could be used for good, in as much as it could be misused and potentially endanger are entire food supply and ecosystem.

And, assuming every ethical consideration, the profit motive included, I have no reason to believe our scientists would be as callous as to develop BT maize that would poison the ugali (maize bread) on the table for their kith and kin.


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