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Economy

Health Secretary blocks planned testing of GMO maize in Kenya

Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu. FILE PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu. FILE PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Health secretary Cleopa Mailu has rejected the planned trial of genetically modified (GM) maize in Kenya, dealing a big blow to scientists and global seed companies, who have been pushing for policy change on the controversial crop science.

Dr Mailu says in a letter to the Ministry of Environment that introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Kenya remains bound by a decision of the 16th Cabinet meeting that banned imports of biotech foods.

He says the ban remains in force until a review and evaluation of scientific information on safety of GM foods on human health is undertaken.

Dr Mailu was responding to news that local scientists have sought permits from the National Environmental Authority (Nema) to carry out GM maize trials in selected sites.

“It should be noted that the application of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) licence to conduct National Performance Trials (NPTs) is a step towards final application for release of the biotech maize into the market for either consumption or cultivation,” Dr Mailu says.

“The Ministry of Health, therefore, upholds the directive by the Cabinet to ban importation and placing on the market of genetically modified foods until the Cabinet provides direction,” the minister says in a letter to the Ministry of Environment.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the body that regulates research and use of GMOs has recently allowed the scientists to conduct field trials for biotech maize, subject to Nema’s decision on the possible impact of the crop on the environment.

Nema in August indicated on its website that it had approved requests for two organisations to start GMO field trails.

The first approval was granted to the Kenya Livestock and Research Organisation (Kalro) and the second to African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). Both were allowed to conduct NPTs.

The trials, which were expected to take two years were to be conducted nationwide in the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service’s (Kephis) confined fields and inspected by other government agencies.

During the field trials, Kephis was to compare the conventional seed varieties with the genetically-modified ones with a view to determining changes in nutritional composition, yield performance and pest tolerance.

Kephis managing director Esther Kimani says the agency would have allowed introduction of the GM crop for large-scale cultivation and commercialisation if it met the said traits.

“If the GMO crop met these traits that scientists have said it has, then we could approve it for mass cultivation after the performance trials,” Dr Kimani said.

Dr Mailu’s decision now brings to question the independence of the regulatory bodies given that the NBA is the organ that should advise the government on the safety of the biotech foods, but whose decision the minister has now stopped.

Willy Tonui, chief executive officer of the NBA, said the GM crops have been tested the world over and found to be safe for consumption. “So long as the GMOs have gone through risk assessment by the NBA, then they are safe for human consumption,” said Dr Tonui on phone yesterday.

The decision comes at a time when research findings by Tegemeo Institute – the crop and animal science arm of Egerton University -- has asked the government to review the ban on GMOs, noting that it is the only way to ensure food sufficiency.

The findings that were released yesterday indicate that GM crops achieve high output compared to the conventional crops. “If you look at the production of GM maize you will realise that they perform better than the ones we are planting at the moment. Look at countries like Mexico US and South Africa, which have maize surplus only because they have adopted GMOs,” said Francis Karin, a senior research assistant at the institute.

Kenya is a maize deficient country that continues to rely on imports to meet growing demand for the staple.

Kenya imposed a ban on GMO crops in November, 2012, citing danger to public health, a decision that locked out many countries, including South Africa, from exporting maize to Kenya.

The taskforce formed to establish the safety of GMO crops following the ban, and influenced by a scientific journal that linked GMO crops to cancer, recommended the lifting of the prohibition on a case by case basis.

For instance, it recommended that in case of severe famine, where there is threat of loss of life, the President, on the advise by the Cabinet, may instruct the food safety and quality control unit to issue a special permit for importation of life-saving food for a limited period.

The US, Brazil and India are the world’s largest growers of GM crops while in Africa, South Africa is the only country that produces GM maize.

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