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Field trials move Kenya closer to GMO bananas

Mr Tom Chesire,  a banana farmer at Kolol in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, The government has approved GMO field tests on bananas. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG
Mr Tom Chesire, a banana farmer at Kolol in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, The government has approved GMO field tests on bananas. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG 

The National Biosafety Authority has approved field tests for genetically modified bananas, moving the country closer to accepting growing and consumption of GMO foods.

The authority, in a Gazette Notice dated September 8 says the approval for controlled field tests was granted on November 7 last year, paving the way for the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation to test transgenic bananas.

The bananas have been modified for purposes of making them resistant to the Xanthomonas Wilt disease – also known as Bacterial Wilt. “That’s an ongoing project at the KALRO Centre in Alupe, Busia,” said Willy Tonui, the NBA chief executive.

“Bananas are vulnerable to a lot of diseases, especially in Western Kenya and parts of Uganda and these trials have been going on for about six months now, and doing very well,” he said.

Growing and consumption of GMO food remains a controversial subject globally due to concerns over the possible negative health impact on human beings. Some of the possible health impacts have been documented in the infamous Seralini Paper, which claimed that genetically modified food causes cancer.

Dr Tonui, however, says the field and laboratory trials are expected to address the health and environmental concerns before final approval of the technology.

“I know there have been a lot of concern over the possible health effects of GMOs out there. But I want to assure the public that the process is very rigorous. It takes about 10 years to develop a GMO seed and we as an authority do a lot of checks to ensure public safety, so there is no need to doubt a process that has been fully vetted and thoroughly monitored,” Dr Tonui said in an interview.

GMO banana research has been going on for years, targeting the bacterial wilt disease.

BT bananas

The project started in Uganda where resistant BT bananas were developed and tested. Kenyan scientists are using Uganda’s success as the proof of their contention that the technology protects bananas against bacterial wilt. The disease causes some yellowish discharge from the banana plant, discolours the fruit at all stages and sometimes prematurely ripens or rots fruits as well as causes the leaves to wilt.

Farmers across East Africa have reported up to 100 per cent yield losses to the disease.

Besides bananas, Dr Tonui said the authority had granted the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa hub at the International Livestock Research Institute approval to conduct controlled laboratory and glass house trials for genetically modified sweet potatoes.

The potatoes will be modified using the RNA Interface technology, which is also known as sequence specific gene silencing to make them resistant to the African weevils.  Approval for this research was granted in May this year.

Thursday, it also emerged that the NBA has allowed National Performance Trials of GMO maize, the Kenyan staple food, marking the first time that testing of the biotechnology will occur in multiple locations around the country.

Approvals

The tests are being done at six locations, all of which are KALRO Centres. Confined field trials for GMO maize started in 2014 when the first seed – MON 810 – was planted at the KALRO Kiboko Centre. That pest resistant seed is mainly targeted at the stem borer pest. Scientists have since modified the seed to include drought tolerance to shield farmers against losses when rains fail.
Approvals for National Performance Trials were first granted in November last year, when KALRO and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation applied.

It was, however, quickly revoked, when the Ministry of Health said the scientists had not shown sufficient evidence that the transgenic maize would be kept safely away from non-GMO maize crops.

“What happened is that the concerns about health came up again, and other socio-economic factors, so we had to go slow on those approvals and wait a little bit. But this time around, the approval will not be revoked,” said Dr Tonui.

Concern has also been raised over the maximum distance between BT and non-BT crops, in order to prevent cross pollination. The NBA, however, said that while isolation distances exist to protect the farmer who may not want anything to do with a transgenic crop, research has proved that there is nothing wrong with BT-non-BT cross pollination.

GMO food is widely consumed in countries such as the USA and South Africa where it has helped to boost food sufficiency.

Such food is packed in clearly marked containers to give consumers the freedom to choose.    

Kenya already laws governing the use GMOs, including labelling, and is currently dealing with the logistics around sharing of rights and proceeds between Kenya and owners of BT genes.

As Kenya comes closer to commercialization of GMO seeds, questions have been raised about NBA’s approvals given the ban that was imposed on such foods in 2012.

“What Kenyans need to understand is that the ban does not in any way affect the release of GMOs into the market. Remember the ban is only on imported food, and it was only to ensure that no genetically modified food comes into the country. At the time of the ban in 2012, it was a precautionary measure that Kenya took because back then, the National Biosafety Authority was not ready.

We didn’t have sufficient staff, we didn’t have all the proper documentation. But right now, we are fully capable to handle all GMO matters,” says Dr Tonui.

Besides maize, bananas and sweet potatoes, Kenya is also developing transgenic cassava, Sorghum, Gypsophila, rice, pigeon peas, ground nuts, cotton and irish potatoes, all of which are at various stages of research. 

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