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Economy

US trade expert tells Kenya to embrace GMOs

US agriculture official, Zhulieta Willbrand says that full-scale adoption of genetic engineering would enable farmers to access crops specifically created to withstand diseases, drought and pests that have affected production in Africa. Photo/FILE
US agriculture official, Zhulieta Willbrand says that full-scale adoption of genetic engineering would enable farmers to access crops specifically created to withstand diseases, drought and pests that have affected production in Africa. Photo/FILE  Nation Media Group

Biotechnology has created a window for Kenya to boost food production in the face of ravaging climate change, a US agriculture official has said, reigniting the old debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Zhulieta Willbrand, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) international trade specialist, said that full-scale adoption of genetic engineering would enable farmers to access crops specifically created to withstand diseases, drought and pests that have affected production in Africa.

“The government should promote open exchange of information about GMOs and other products of biotechnology so that farmers can select the best option depending on challenges that they face,” Ms Willbrand said in Nairobi Wednesday.

Genetic engineering allows crop breeds to select desired traits of an organism such as drought, disease or pest tolerance after which the genes are manipulated to create a new organism.

Kenya has a Biosafety Authority set up three years ago to regulate research, transfer and trade in GMOs through a legislation passed in 2009, many farmers are not aware of the activities of the agency.

Three years ago, then Public Health minister Beth Mugo banned the importation of the genetically modified materials saying the country did not have any study backing their safety.

At the time, the minister was reacting to claims that unscrupulous traders had shipped in several bags of GM maize from South Africa to bridge the production shortfall experienced in 2009.

“The ban remains on import of GMOs but we are licensing increasing number of studies and researches which are going on at the moment,” Dr Willy Tonoi, CEO of the National Biosafety Authority, told the Business Daily Wednesday.

Ms Willbrand said that Kenya had one of the best research capacities to drive commercialisation of biotechnology in Africa.

Farmers, she added, should be made to understand the qualities of GM seeds and even helped to evaluate them the same way they handle other hybrid seeds available in the country.

“Once a country has strong regulatory environment that encourage scientists to conduct their researches responsibly, the decision as to whether GMOs are safety should be left to regulators not activists,” said Ms Willbrand.

But in the absence of official communication on GMOs, farmers in Africa only get to hear the side of debated advanced by anti-GMO, the US officials said.

She cited the case of US consumers saying they have been using GMOs in the last 17 years but have never experienced side effects that have been cited by the anti-GM campaigners.

The civil society groups have claimed that GM foods can cause cancer, citing a study done by French scientists on rats a few years ago.

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