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Scientists cross their fingers as biotech regulator set to announce GM maize verdict

Activists representing organic farmers’ movements protest in Nakuru in October to mark the World Food Day. They want the government to tighten biosafety regulations to prevent health risks that might arise from consumption of genetically modified organisms. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH
Activists representing organic farmers’ movements protest in Nakuru in October to mark the World Food Day. They want the government to tighten biosafety regulations to prevent health risks that might arise from consumption of genetically modified organisms. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH 

When James Leting planted maize on his farm early last year, he was hoping for the best crop at the end of the season. But this was not the case. Pests wiped out nearly half of his harvest.

Despite the losses, the farmer from Uasin Gishu County says he will be reluctant to adopt genetically modified (GM) seeds in the event the State gives a green light for their release to farmers.

Scientists from the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation have formally applied to the biosafety regulator for release of GM maize that has been on trial for commercial production. The application follows several years of laboratory trials. 

The GM seeds have been confined within Kiboko Farm in Machakos, where they are undergoing research that is closely supervised by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA).

Scientists argue that GM crops have the ability to withstand pests and diseases, saving growers from possible losses.

A notorious insect known to affect maize production is the stalk borer, which attacks the crop while at its vegetative stage (cobs and stalks).

The authority is set to make the decision this month on adoption of the biotech maize, after completing the public participation process.

Mr Leting’s worries and doubts over adoption of the GMOs represents the views of thousands of farmers who are at crossroads over the adoption of the biotech crops, either for lack of information or fears on what has been said about them before.

Unlike five years ago, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania now have policies on biotechnology in place. Kenya even has a law that governs environmental release of GMOs.

Kenya first adopted the National Biotechnology Development Policy in 2006 followed by the passage of the Biosafety Act in 2009. The law permitted the establishment of a biosafety oversight agency in 2010.

Even before the recommendations on whether to release the biotech maize for field trials are made public, a section of farmers in the North Rift have held demonstrations in protest arguing that studies have linked the foods to cancer.

Led by the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum, the growers said the government needs to do more research on the crops before allowing Kenyan farmers to grow them.

A ban on GMOs was effected in 2012 when a task force formed by then Public Health minister Beth Mugo declared that GM foods were unfit for human consumption, basing the decision on earlier studies that linked the crops to cancerous tumours in rats.

The move prompted the State to form a taskforce in 2014 to ascertain the safety of the technology.

The task force, which was chaired by Prof Kihumbu Thairu, handed in its report to the former Health Cabinet secretary James Macharia.

The report recommends the lifting of the ban on a case by case basis, subject to the enactment of new legislation on the safety of GM foods for human consumption.

“The taskforce noted that no GM product has so far been tested for safety for human consumption in Kenya and the present Biosafety Act has no specific provision for testing these products for safety,” reads the report.

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

“Notwithstanding this, every effort should be made to source the food from non-GMO sources, failing which emergency GM food may be allowed in,” adds the report.

NBA’s mandate is to ensure adequate safety to human and animal health as well as protection of the environment in all activities involving GMOs, consistent with provisions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

Adoption of modern biotechnology in East Africa has been sluggish but progressive. Governments are slowly warming up to its acceptance, with formulation of laws and policies that permit research and confined field trials on GMO crops.

Regionally, Tanzania has had its biosafety regulations tagged to the environmental law that was enacted in 2004.

The Tanzania Biosafety Regulations, adopted in 2009, contained restrictive provisions for handling matters GMO under what was termed as Strict Liability and Redress regime.

However, after appeals from scientists and advocacy groups, the regulation was amended this year to permit research on GM crops.

“Following intense engagement among policy and decision makers for a long time, the government amended the National Biosafety Regulations by removing the Strict Liability Clauses to permit research for now and hopefully later on,” said Janet Kaaya, research officer, Ministry of Agriculture in Tanzania.

A supplementary amendment to remove the strict liability clause to allow for commercialisation is expected to follow after successful confined field trial results.

Following the review, Tanzanian scientists in October announced that they will start confined field trials (CFTs) of insect pest-protected maize and drought-tolerant maize hybrids in April.

“There were four to five years of intense high-level policy advocacy, from the time the policy and the Bill were formulated to the time they were promulgated and passed respectively and finally being fully implemented,” says Daniel Otunge, an official at the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB).

OFAB is a project of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), whose main mandate is to advocate for science-based decision-making on matters of modern agricultural biotechnology. 

Role of politics

In the entire GMO journey, politics has played a critical role. Political goodwill is necessary for GM crops to gain further traction in Africa, according to experts.

The amendment of Tanzania’s biosafety regulations took the intervention of high-level policy makers, including the prime minister and the president, who questioned the wisdom of maintaining regulations that denied local scientists opportunity to test GMO products to prove their benefits and safety beyond reasonable doubts.

In Kenya, Deputy President William Ruto has been on the forefront calling for the lifting of the GMO ban, pointing out that the future of agriculture lies with technology.

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni at a ceremony scolded MPs who have opposed the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 “out of lack of understanding”.

Mr Museveni urged the legislators to back the government in its quest to give farmers access to the potentially life-changing technologies by speedily passing the necessary laws.

Uganda has by far the highest number of GM crops under various stages of development in East Africa.

“Africa is food insecure and leaders are looking for ways to feed its people. And biotech is offering very viable alternatives. We only hope that such publically expressed support will be quickly turned into action by leaders,” says OFAB.

GMO research in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania is partially funded by public funds through allocations to the various national agricultural research systems, universities and science councils or commissions.

In Kenya, for example, Kalro is supported by government to develop transgenic crops such as maize, cotton, cassava, papaya and sorghum, some of which are ready for deployment to farmers.

Mr Otunge says a positive outcome from the verdict of NBA in Kenya will be a big win for farmers and to the national economy since the country spends millions of dollars annually to import more than400,000 tonnes of maize annually, equivalent to the amount destroyed by the deadly stem borer.

The Cereal Millers Association has been pushing the government to lift the ban on GMOs as a way of addressing the annual maize deficit.

Problem

“GMO maize is safe and the production per acre is higher than the usual maize. Lifting the ban on this crop is the only surest way that the government would have addressed the perennial deficit problem in Kenya,” said the association’s chief executive Paloma Fernandez. 

Globalised anti- GMO movement is active in many parts of Africa, including Kenya, where the activists have now resorted to court actions and to influencing party elections in their multimillion dollar opposition to GMOs.

But even with many campaigns around GMO adoption, East African governments are aware that they need to exploit all possible solutions to save lives.

Biotechnology is obviously a tool they are reaching out to try. The success of its uptake and economic impact in South Africa and Burkina Faso is what leaders are banking on.

Data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation shows that 37 million East Africans will be malnourished in 2014-2016, with Kenya accounting for 9.9 million of these cases.

Food production, especially maize in Kenya, has deficit of two million tonnes annually. Unfavourable weather conditions, pests and poor seed is what Tegemeo Institute and agencies like FAO blame for poor yields.

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