Maize shortage plays into hands of genetically modified food advocates

Globally, the value of the biotech seed  market was estimated at Sh9.7 trillion last year.  File
Globally, the value of the biotech seed market was estimated at Sh9.7 trillion last year. File 

To a casual observer, Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta successfully deflated pressure that was mounting on the government to lower food prices when he scrapped duty on maize imports two weeks ago.

To government policy mandarins, the duty free directive has taken away the heat to lower food prices from the country’s top executives and shifted it to private food processors — to procure cheap maize, mill it efficiently, and give Kenyans cheaper flour.

Looked at critically, however, the duty free maize programme has also reopened a fresh battlefront in the never ending face-off between proponents of organic agriculture and backers of the multibillion-shilling global genetic engineering industry.

“The duty free market that is opening in Kenya is regarded in South Africa as new hope for the genetically modified maize after the country tried unsuccessfully to change laws to allow for use of her surplus production to generate biofuel,” said Ms Haidee Swanby, an official at the African Centre for Biosafety, a South African based NGO that advocates for organic agriculture.

In South Africa, the GM technology has helped raise maize production to six million tonnes in 2010, leading to a glut that has caused significant drop in prices, Ms Swanby said in Nairobi where she teamed up with a group of local and international scientists in a campaign against transboundary movement of genetically modified (GM) materials. The comments, made just days before the 2011/12 Budget speech, coincided with the sudden upward adjustment of flour prices to Sh130 a packet, upping the campaign for the duty free maize importation programme.


Local millers have attributed the high national prices on a sudden rise in procurement cost for dry maize from Sh1,300 per 90 kg bag at the beginning of the year to an average of Sh4,500.

Naturally grown

“Naturally grown maize is in short supply in the international market and if we were to solely rely on it under present conditions of high oil prices and depreciating shilling, it will not ease the current flour prices because its landing price will be slightly higher than current national prices”, Mr Munir Sabit, the finance officer at Mombasa Millers, told the Business Daily a few weeks ago as millers campaigned for the duty free facility.

Lately, the Cereals Millers Association has stoked the old flame over GM foods when its chairman, Mr Diamond Lalji, hinted to the media that local millers planned to import GM maize if given a nod by the recently established Biosafety Authority.

A green light to import GM maize could see the country diversify its maize source beyond the traditional southern African states of Malawi, Zambia, and South Africa to include the US and Southern American states. Officials of the authority could not be reached for comment, but Agriculture ministry officials said whether or not to allow GM maize was within the agency’s mandate.

The anti-GM campaigners said Kenya, like most African countries, does not have the capacity to test GM materials and has to rely on facilities of South Africa and Zambia.

“Until recently, Kenyan authorities were not even asking for a certificate of GMO declaration from importers,” says Ms Anne Maina, an advocacy coordinator at the Thika based African Biodiversity Network. For close to 15 years, scientists have been using GM technology to isolate desired genetic traits such as disease resistance, fast maturity, or drought resistance, for incorporation into the cells of plants or animals.

“When GM crops were first introduced in the US in 1996, there were fantastic promises of new technology that would change the face of agriculture — drought resistance, saline resistance, improved nutrition and more”, said Ms Swanby, adding that results have not borne out most of these claims.

Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher, a UK-trained molecular geneticist, shares the sentiments. She said since the scientist has no control where the planted gene inserts itself within an already stable system of cells, the resulting random integration can only mean the quality of the end product is also unpredictable. A developmental biologist specialising in gene regulation and gene modification Dr Steinbrecher, who is also a member of Federation of German Scientists as well as a founder of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, is vehemently opposed GM technology.

“Gene works the same way as an ecosystem and this can only mean that any new introduction in the body has its own consequences which may not necessarily be good,” Dr Steinbrecher told journalists in Nairobi last month.

Feeding trials on animals have, however, revealed a growing body of evidence of impacts. Among the recorded effects on animals are inflammation, ulcerations and excessive growth of the stomach and gut lining.

They have also recorded disturbance of liver, pancreas and kidney function; disturbance of testes function; and alteration in levels of red blood cells. Most recently, such trials have uncovered altered body weight, allergy, and immune responses in animals. In plants, the technology has been linked to increased toxicity in cotton, increased lignin (chemical discharge) in soya, and altered levels of vitamins in fruits and vegetables.

Staple food

“As long as the staple food is GM, these side effects could soon be seen in humans,” said Dr Steinbrecher. At the international level, there is now recognition that GMOs are different from naturally occurring organisms and may carry special risks and hazards, said Ms Lilibeth Aruelo, a biologist and a lawyer at the Malaysia-based Third World Network.

This is the concern that led to the signing of the Cartagena Protocol in 2003 to regulate international trans-boundary movement (import and export) of genetically modified materials. The protocol mandates exporting countries to submit all documents and studies supporting their products for approval before being allowed to transport them to third countries. Kenya, being a signatory of the protocol, moved to incorporate the regulation in her Biosafety Act 2009 which came into force last year. It is under this legislation that the Kenya Biosafety Authority has been set up to inspect and approve any activity that involves GMOs. Among other responsibilities, the authority has the responsibility of coordinating, monitoring and assessing activities relating to the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms and ensuring they do not pose adverse effects on human health and the environment.

But the Cartagena protocol provided an international legal framework for handling GMO movements without spelling out third party compensation. Its signatories have since come up with Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress.

Most signatories, including Kenya, are yet to sign this supplementary law which aims at forcing patent holders of GM material to compensate consumers or farmers in case of any contamination.

Globally, the value of the biotech seed market was estimated at Sh9.7 trillion in 2010, with only 2.7 per cent of agricultural land dedicated to GM crops, reports, an online facility that tracks GMOs.

Majority of this production, the report says, is grown in the US, Brazil, and Argentina. In spite of the strong resistance African countries have shown towards GMOs, Kenya is believed to have bowed to US pressure two years ago to speedily pass the Biosafety law that now allows it to trade in such products.

Diplomatic cable

A diplomatic cable released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks recently revealed that the US, which is not a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol, was the main force behind the enactment of Kenya’s Biosafety Law.

The cable, sent to the American Secretary of State in March 2009 by former US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, said the American government put pressure on Kenya to pass the law.

Critics of the law says it waters down powers of the biosafety authority, stripping it of independence from political manipulation and rendering it toothless against rich US multinationals that promote GM technology in Africa.

“Most conspicuously, this Act fails to clarify who has the responsibility to pay for the risk assessment of GMOs to be introduced or consumed in Kenya,” said Ms Maina

Under a USAid loan, Kenya has since built a Sh1 billion ($12 million) biosafety facility at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari). The country has been undertaking experiments in the production of biotechnology cotton.

This massive investment is yet to change the attitude towards GM technology, with civil society groups still vowing to fight the technology.

“We do not believe that the top-down technological solutions will solve the many challenges that Kenyan farmers face and therefore demand government protection of integrity of agro-ecological practices and local seed varieties by banning GMOs,” said Ms Maina.