State should explain benefits of GM foods

The government’s resolve to introduce genetically modified foods as a solution to the country’s persistent hunger and rising cost of agricultural production has captured public attention in social media and other forums of interaction.

What stands out across the divide is the level of ignorance on what the debate, punctuated by commercial and political interests, is all about in the first place. Available literature, however, suggests that GMOs have been accepted globally as the ultimate solution to solving most of the problems that affect living beings - plants and animals

Through the genetic engineering it is possible to increase crop yields for instance by injecting desirable attributes from another organism, reducing the incidence of disease and use of herbicides. The potential in the farming sector need not be gainsaid with some studies indicating production could rise by as much as 50 per cent, ensuring there is enough to eat and to support industries that feed off the agricultural chain.

At current production levels, GM food production would wipe out the cartels that thrive on commodity imports necessitated by domestic shortfalls. GMOs, in this case, would have the same impact that synthetics have had in the manufacturing sector, helping sustain enterprises that would have shut down because of the finite nature of natural raw materials. Despite the benefits GMOs portend, their novelty has come with predictable concerns over their safety, particularly with regard to human health and the environment. That some of the potential side effects are grotesque highlights the bad job genetic engineers have done in making themselves understood outside their high security laboratories.

Yet these are not perceptions that can be laughed off; rather, they need to be explained logically and existing proof to the contrary adduced. A well funded lobby has to date, even in Europe and America, circumvented scrutiny that would persuade that the genetic scientists are not solely driven by the commercial imperative.

Campaigners against GMOs have for three decades advocated for compulsory labelling, continuous safety testing, water-tight regulation and liability by promoters for damages proven to arise from adoption of modified varieties.

This is a route that Kenya should take but it is unlikely to do so in isolation from the international community. The existing Biosafety Act, however, has safeguards which if enforced would ensure that the benefits of GMOs are not discarded just because of negative perceptions.