Health

GMO debate must offer alternative innovations

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A past protest in Nairobi against plans to import GMO foods. PHOTO | FILE |

Summary

  • While giving a timeline for a matter that is subject to a Cabinet decision is problematic enough, the arguments that proponents of GMOs are advancing for their commercialisation demand scrutiny.

The debate sparked by Deputy President William Ruto’s recent announcement that the ban on the importation and use of genetically modified organism (GMO) foods will be lifted in a month or two continues to rage.

While giving a timeline for a matter that is subject to a Cabinet decision is problematic enough, the arguments that proponents of GMOs are advancing for their commercialisation demand scrutiny.

Opponents of GMO foods insist that the latest push to lift the November 8, 2012 ban is a multinational agenda. In an environment where scientists, State actors and multinational corporations are united under the so-called public-private partnership, separating public good from personal greed and vested interests can be complex.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Nairobi, is a major promoter of GMO technology. Its donors include multinationals Monsanto, BASF, Dow Agro, Pioneer/DuPont and Syngenta.

AATF says it is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes public-private partnerships for access and delivery of agricultural technologies for sustainable use by smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) through innovative partnerships.

Following the DP’s announcement regarding the imminent unbanning of GMO foods, AATF executive director Denis Tumwesigye Kyetere wrote an article on August 15 in the Saturday Nation and advanced an argument of how biotech maize “heralds a new future.”

AATF and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organisation (Kalro) want to move GMOs from experimental fields to the open environment and the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) has given Kenyans until August 23 to send written comments on the Kalro-AATF application.

Dr Kyetere’s arguments in support of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) include boosting the incomes of rural farmers and providing affordable food, resistance to the stem-borer insect pests that cause millions of shillings worth of damage to farmers’ crops each year, economic, social and environmental benefits are potentially huge.

The technology has put South Africa ahead of all other countries in the region in maize production, making it self-sufficient and a leading exporter of maize to other African countries and science and technology has lifted millions of people in Taiwan and South Korea out of poverty.

“Those that don’t (adopt GMOs) remain stuck in the past,” Dr Kyetere concludes.

The problem with Dr Kyetere’s last sentence is that it casts anybody querying the technology’s soundness as backward. However, there should be a room to rationally critique the proffered arguments. It is also false as some of the most developed countries have either banned or restricted GMOs.

On August 13, the director-general of Kalro, formerly Kari, Dr Eliud Kireger, also wrote an article that appeared in the Daily Nation —the same day Mr Ruto announced the imminent commercialisation of GMOs. It was titled Biotechnology can ensure food security”. The DP’s announcement and the two articles betray a campaign to win Kenyans over to GMOs.

According to the Kalro boss, “the damage the stem borer pest inflicts on maize crops is greater than Sh9 billion per year”. He notes that the pest reduces maize yields by 13 per cent or 400,000 tonnes of maize per year — an amount that can double during drought years. The annual loss is equivalent to Kenya’s normal (maize) imports, he said.

“In other words, if stem borer damage could be controlled, Kenya could become self-sufficient in maize,” Dr Kireger said, making a case for the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) project.

Wema, which has been undergoing tests on Kalro’s Kiboko farm in Machakos, is replicated in South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

Seed multinational Monsanto is the sole supplier of the seed in the project in which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) are among the major partners.

So far, Monsanto has poured a whopping Sh8.5 billion into the project.

Long-term effect

In an interview with the director of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, Mr John Njoroge, he said that there was nothing wrong with GMOs. However, “the problem is GMOs’ untested long-term effect on the environment, which is very difficult to gauge.”

Mr Njoroge has been teaching and disseminating environment-friendly farming methods since 1986. “We do not know much about GMOs,” he says, adding, it will be a mistake to commercialise the technology, only for it to end up harming its users and the environment. He suggests the push-pull technology as a preferred method of dealing with the stem-borer (see story).

How much the stem-borer will mutate after ingesting the noxious substance in the genetically-modified maize seed and the extent to which the gene that is poisonous to the caterpillar will harm the environment is not known, Mr Njoroge cautions.

“What happens after you discover that there is a problem with the technology?”

He draws parallels between GMOs and DDT, whose discoverer, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller, won the 1948 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

The position of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is that “proper limited use of DDT, on the inside walls of homes, can be effective and have virtually no impact on the environment”. However, use of the chemical, which was banned by the US Environment Protection Agency in 1972, is prohibited by various countries because of environmental reasons.

Mr Njoroge says that GMO technology cannot be undone “once it’s out there in the wild”. He is also concerned that Monsanto, the key stakeholder in the Wema project, is a conglomerate of various seed companies — at least 60, according to an Internet search.
A widely-repeated claim is that Wema will increase maize production.

On August 7, a leading South African NGO, The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), lodged an appeal against the decision by Agriculture, Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Senzeni Zokwana, allowing the release of Monsanto’s genetically-modified maize, MON87460.

The Executive Council’s approval means that Monsanto can sell the GM maize seed to farmers in the country for cultivation. The organisation is challenging a claim that GMOs will produce higher yields. It accuses the Executive Council of turning a blind eye to the socio-economic impacts that may arise should MON87640 be introduced to smallholder farmers.

Huge risks

“Socio-economic studies conducted of the impacts of GM maize in the Eastern Cape point to huge economic risks for smallholder farmers. These studies also show that non-GM varieties, including open-pollinated varieties (OPVs), outperform GM varieties because these OPVs are better adapted to smallholder farmers’ agro-ecologies, fluctuations in rainfall and suboptimal storage conditions.”

In an e-mail communication, Mr Harold Miller, a former secretary for Rural Development in the National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) called for “a thorough inventory of the range of excellent ‘peasant food’ grown by the 42 communities in Kenya.

“I suspect this country is sitting on a gold mine,” he said, and pointed at a small farmers’ effort in the US, known as Seed Savers Co-operative, which has made a huge difference to smallholders without resorting to GMOs.

“If Kenya’s small farmer community were given proper attention, support and recognition, the country’s food problem would be solved, many times over,” he wrote.

AATF boss Kyetere singles out South Korea and Taiwan as examples of countries that have overcome poverty because of science and technology.

Correct, but science and technology is not necessarily GMO technology. Indeed, Taiwan is rapidly urbanising, and just like Kiambu, cropland is giving way to real estate. Western lifestyles are setting in, with imported wheat products replacing rice in the diet.

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