Kenya has removed that last hurdle to the growing and sale of genetically modified crops, opening up the domestic market to cheaper varieties of staple foods such as maize and wheat that could help reduce supply and stabilise prices in the near term.
The genetically engineered crops, commonly known as GMOs, got a legal backing last Friday with the publication of a notice opening up the Kenyan market to genetically modified organisms beginning July 1, 2011. People seeking to produce or trade in genetically modified material must, however, get written consent from the National Safety Authority – the regulator.
The coming into force of the Bio-safety Act 2009 offers importers a wider variety of commodities to choose from as they move to ship in staple foods such as maize and wheat to help end the supply shortage that has seen retail prices rise beyond many households in recent weeks.
“There is now room for millers to ship in alternative varieties of maize developed through GM technology that is also cheaper by up to 30 per cent,” said Diamond Lalji, the chairman of Cereals Millers Association.
Traders said GM products are expected to form a sizeable portion of the maize shipments to Kenya between now and December under a special duty-free import scheme that Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta announced in his June budget.
Roy Mugira, the acting head of the newly established National Safety Authority (NSA) last week said the agency will allow importation of genetically modified (GM) maize to mitigate a looming shortage.
“The prevailing circumstances have forced us to expedite the publication of regulations on genetically modified (GM) crops and the guidelines on their importation,” Mr Mugira to Reuters news agency. Publication of the law comes as Kenya is facing an acute shortage of staple maize floor that has resulted in huge price increases and left millions starving.
The government’s decision to open up Kenya to GMOs has rekindled the long-running debate as to whether it is the right policy decision.
Prof Samuel Gudu, a plant breeding specialist and Moi University’s Deputy Vice chancellor in-charge of planning and development, reckons GM technology could help Kenya increase the production of key crops such as maize.
“GMOs are meant to improve the quality of maize. They can protect the crop against insects and what Kenyans should be asking for are the details of the consignment to be brought in as opposed to fear-mongering,” he said.
University of Nairobi’s Centre for Biotechnology and Bio-informatics Director Prof James Opiyo Ochanda said use of GMOs could be beneficial to Kenya’s attainment of food security because genetically engineered crops are resistant to pests and diseases that often require expensive and harmful chemicals to eradicate.
“Instead of applying chemicals, scientists have engineered the plants to introduce genes or molecules that allow the crop to protect itself. This is better than application of chemicals that pollute the environment and harm the body thus posing dangers to our systems,” he said.
Anti-GMO lobbyists have however opposed to the move saying the safety of genetically engineered crops has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. “The developers of GMOs have exerted great pressure to ensure that the Biosafety Act of 2009 serves the interests of foreign agribusiness, rather than farmers and consumers,” Ms Anne Maina, an advocacy coordinator for African Biodiversity Network (ABN) said in a statement.
“Introduction of patented seeds and related chemicals into our farming systems threatens our agricultural practices, our livelihoods, the environment, and undermines our seed sovereignty,” she said. The price of maize has risen sharply in the past few months, straining the budgets of most households and adding impetus to inflationary pressure that began in earnest three months ago.
A 90kg bag of maize is currently priced at an average of Sh4,500 compared to an average of Sh3,000 in April – huge movement in pricing given that a similar amount of the staple food cost Sh1800 in January.