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LUMUMBA: Monsanto not entirely honest about GMOs

A labourer displays harvested pyrethrum flowers. FILE photo | nmg
A labourer displays harvested pyrethrum flowers. FILE photo | nmg 

American biotechnology giant, Monsanto, has recently renewed its quest to popularise genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as Kenya and Africa’s best bet against hunger.

In an interview published in the Business Daily two weeks ago, Monsanto’s vice-president for global commercial and supply chain - Jesus Madrazo - said GMO crops provided Africa with the right technology and opportunity to respond to challenges like climate change and impact on food production.

Our observation is that Mr Madrazo did not fully explore the multiple reasons for the declining output but instead chose to blame it largely on climate change – for which GMOs are constantly prescribed as the solution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

No consensus

Like many countries around the world, Kenya’s reluctance to approve environmental release of GMO crops points to the fact that there is no consensus among stakeholders that genetic modification is the panacea to food insecurity.

Indeed, the possible adverse effects of GMOs on human health have not been empirically scrutinised by organisations such as Monsanto to allay food safety concerns related to this technology.

It cannot be argued that the government of Kenya is making a mistake in protecting its citizens from eating potentially harmful foods when healthy alternatives abound.

More importantly, it is worth noting that Monsanto owns more than 80 per cent of all GMO germplasm in the world and finances the bulk of GM research (with obvious partiality in terms of research design) and, therefore, has a direct and overriding interest in GM adoption in Kenya. This should not be overlooked by policy makers at the expense of public health.

Mr Madrazo’s responses to certain questions during the interview were particularly disconcerting.

For instance, when asked about Monsanto’s relevance in the emerging dispensation where climate change is posing a major challenge to food security, his answer was simply the adaptation of biotechnology.

Never mind that climate change is only one variable in our food production matrix.

In our experience, the main reasons for declining output is declining soil fertility due to misuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, application of sub-standard chemical fertilizers and pesticides, causing high acidity in our soils (all owing to lack of farm-level technical advice) and over-reliance on rain-fed farming.

There’s need for revival of extension service, and intensification of post-product registration surveillance by the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) to ensure consistency in the efficacy and public health profile of pest control products.

Misuse of fertiliser, pesticides

It is our position as Kenya Pyrethrum Joint Venture, that intensified food production, by itself, may not yield the desired results if regulations governing food safety, from farm-to-fork, are not reviewed to enhance public health and environmental conservation through adoption of pyrethrum-based natural, organic pesticides, which are proven to be healthy safer to humans and the environment and have greater knock-down effect on pests, compared to synthetics.

The food we produce is increasingly becoming unsafe owing to high acidity in our soils and this is a problem we see consistently across ecological zones. Our soils require urgent remediation as we work to intensify food production.

We think time is ripe for review of CAP 346 that regulates the registration of pesticides in Kenya, which in our view, is a colonial relic that has outlived its usefulness.

Based on this law, most of the foreign pest control products registered by PCPB contain endocrine disruptors and classified carcinogens and, have been banned in their countries of origin on this basis.

If such products are used in the production of more food, the long-term cost on our public healthcare system and the economy is unfathomable.

It is scientifically proven that endocrine disruption leads to growth of cancerous cells. This has become a major cause for worry given the high instances of new cancer cases and the rising number of Kenyans succumbing to the terminal disease every day.

Emphasis, therefore, should not be on mere “doubling” of production but ensuring a balance between sufficiency and safety of the food produced.

Review policies

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s focus on food security and manufacturing in his final term presents a unique opportunity for review of Kenya’s food production policies and systems and their impact on public health.

Second, Mr Madrazo was equally cunning when asked whether GM crops are the solution to weather challenges and how Kenya’s policy environment is impacting adaptation of new technologies in agriculture.

First, Monsanto does not tell us that GM crops are a potentially harmful alternative, which harm Big Food organisations have no incentive to subject to a transparent, objective empirical assessment.

Monsanto’s legendary insistence and inference that the preponderance of research ‘findings’ in favor of GM crops should be sufficient grounds for wholesome adoption, is fundamentally flawed.

Hidden behind this facade of research backing are two critical elements. First, that public funding for research in top universities and research institutes in the west has significantly reduced in the past decade and now amounts to, on average, 10 per cent of total annual spend.

This means research directors are at the mercy of private entities, such as Monsanto, that provide conditional grants to bridge the 90 per cent gap.

Second, that in order for these conditional grants to be advanced continuously, research directors, out of desperation for funds, allow entities such as Monsanto to influence research design and ‘findings’ to ensure published outcomes are favorable to brand image, share value and product sales.

This clarification is significant.

Whereas adaptive technologies in the development of seed varieties have shown good results, the emphasis genetic engineering places on transgenic seeds is an ethically contentious matter for which there is no general objective consensus in the scientific community.

The solution is to remedy our soils to reduce acidity, conduct through post-registration surveillance of pest control products, provide extension service to our farmers, embrace irrigation and carry out aggressive re-afforestation.

In terms of soil remediation and use of healthy bio-pesticides with high knockdown effect, there is no active ingredient better than pyrethrin for the making of biological pesticides and fertilizers. Kenya has a clear advantage in this regard, having at one time controlled more than 70 per cent of global pyrethrin supply.

What’s more, the relevant government agencies in Kenya do not have the capacity to check the safety profile of GM food – either directly or through metabolites.

In addition, it is a long-standing global best practice in agriculture that a new technology/variety cannot be adopted unless it is proven to be at least 10 per cent better than a conventional variety, based on an agreed set of parameters.
This has NOT been done, transparently and objectively, in the case of GM trials in Kenya.

Scrutiny

Proponents of GM crops should subject their science to open scrutiny and focus on convincing Kenyans of the utility and safety profile of their technology, not push it down our throats.

Around the world, it is generally accepted that GM crops might offer some benefits.

But relatively little research has been carried out in places like South Africa regarding their impact on human health and the environment even though Bt-maize has been grown there for 20 years.

Therein lies the problem. Subjection of anecdotal data to empirical verification is a very expensive process, whose costs are unfathomable to farmers who need such findings to guide their input choices.

One of the key outcomes of the study was the observation of varying levels of the expression of the Bt-toxin that was interpreted as likely to contribute to the development of insect resistance to the Bt-toxin in South Africa.

When Bt-technology was introduced almost 20 years ago using GM plants, scientists projected a rapid increase in the resistance level against the Bt-toxin. Worst-case scenarios even predicted that pests would become resistant to such GM Bt-plants in a very short time period.

This prediction was further supported by a study indicating that the frequency of a resistant gene in the pink bollworm was about 1 in 10, about 100 times higher than estimated when compared to other pests of Bt-crops.

Growing Bt-crops on millions of hectares has generated a selection process for insects never experienced before. There is evidence that frequency of resistance alleles in insects has recently increased against the first generation of Bt-crops.

Mr Madrazo emphasizes the fact that agriculture is a profitable economic activity and we agree. We however hold that what has been lacking is a balanced emphasis on both quantity and quality.

We need to focus on higher production of safe foods by paying attention to the condition of our soil, input quality, storage and value-addition.

The list of critical components that remain unaddressed by policymakers includes subsidy, cost of doing business, access to markets and product stewardship. Every country that has succeeded in pushing up food production did so by placing due emphasis on subsidies for inputs, backed up by an efficient seasonal credit system, game-changing incentives for value addition and actively facilitated access to markets. Kenya should be no exception.

In addition, it is a fact that the average African farmer, without the benefit of subsidies, does not have the resources to procure fresh high-quality inputs every planting season.

This partly explains why most of them chose to replant the GM varieties.

Mr Lumumba is the Chief Executive Officer Green Earth Trust/Kenya Pyrethrum Joint Venture (KPJV)

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