Boss Talk

Roy Mugiira: Biosafety agency boss on its fight against GMO myths


Dr Roy Mugiira is the chief executive of the National Biosafety Authority. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

The biotech research community in Kenya heaved with relief when the government lifted a decade-old ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in October last year.

This would face headwinds immediately when court cases stopped the regulator, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), from facilitating the distribution, importation, transactions and growth of GMOs.

Dr Roy Mugiira, chief executive of NBA, was the regulator’s founding CEO when it was set up in 2009.

He is back at the institution in the same capacity at a time the country is engaged in a divisive debate over whether GM food crops are the solution to its perennial food insecurity.

Dr Mugiira spoke to the Business Daily on Kenya’s regulatory position, why it took longer to lift the ban and how the country can have a coherent debate on GMOs.

Does Kenya have the requisite capacity to regulate the importation and growth of GMOs?

We have what it takes. Kenyans should have confidence in our institutions and our professionals. We became a key participant in this subsector when we signed the Cartagena Protocol in 2002 and assented to it in 2003.

This made Kenya a State party to the framework that governs this technology globally. In 2006, we crafted the National Biotechnology Development Policy.

We followed that up with the enactment of the National Biosafety Act in 2009. This is the primary Act that establishes the NBA.

What specific laws regulate biotechnology in the country?

These touch on the conduct of business in research, environmental release, import and export (2011) and labelling (2012).

Labelling is not a safety issue but is necessary for purposes of choice among consumers.

We work with eight other regulatory agencies such as the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema), Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Kenya Intellectual Property Institute (KIPI) for intellectual reasons. It is an architecture that has evolved over time.

Have you approved any crops for importation since last year’s withdrawal of the ban?

Shortly after the court order, we got a request to import a quantity of BT white maize from South Africa. We froze the request because we already had a court order that stopped us from implementing the Cabinet decision.

At the time, four petitions had been filed in court, including one from Kenyan Peasants League. Hundreds of Kenyans, however, have sought information from us on how to import GM products, which we have continued to provide through demonstrations.

What are some of the requirements that traders must meet to obtain import permits?

Approval is based on assessments done in the country of origin for a product to be used as food, feed and processing. It should also not find its way to grow in our local environment.

Any decision we make here is posted in the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) which is an international mechanism for the exchange of information on the movement of GMOs across the world.

If a product is coming in as a seed for propagation, it must obtain approval for environmental release.

Are there significant differences between GM and non-GM food crops?

The difference between BT and non-BT maize is negligible. Even the chemical analysis is nearly the same.

The main and perhaps only difference is the availability of the protein that protects the BT one from infestation by the stem borer that destroys the crop.

Does the law on biosafety sufficiently cover you as the regulator? What gaps exist in the legal and regulatory frameworks?

The law is well-grounded. What we need to strengthen is how we regulate emerging technologies. The maize we are about to release is developed from a technology that dates back to 1996.

Genetics science has since grown beyond this. We are now talking about starred genes that produce a maize crop that is tolerant to pests and drought.

Genome editing, for instance, allows a researcher to address shortfalls in the gene of an organism for enhanced yields in both crops and livestock.

Several African countries, including Burkina Faso and South Africa, are already cultivating GMO food crops. When can Kenya expect to start production?

The Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation had secured 11 tonnes of seeds for farmers to grow for demonstration and comparison with other maize varieties.

We had approved the seeds for release during the long rains. With the court cases, it is difficult to tell when the country will start to import, grow and consume these crops.

What happens after a crop has been released for commercial purposes?

There is always potential for abuse of technology. This is why we monitor a crop for 20 years together with other relevant regulatory bodies to ensure that it is used properly.

This is called technology stewardship. We file reports based on observations and the performance of the crop. If there are no incidents within this period, we deregulate it, where monitoring stops.

We are designing specific regulations for BT maize, considering the central place the cereal occupies in our country’s food ecosystem.

Politics, policy and science often clash in this subject. How are you promoting harmony in the discourse?

All concerns raised on this matter are legitimate. Sometimes, though, the concerns stem from misinformation or no information at all.

Our role as the regulator is to stand between the sceptics, researchers, developers and commercial interests and to prevent discourse that is full of myths that have no grounding in science.

Our challenge is the difficulty of sustaining an argument through political discourse. Times change and politicians shift positions depending on interests and the circumstances at hand.

Are you satisfied with the level of public awareness and engagement on GMOs?

This area requires a lot of work. We have not done as well as we would have wished to, largely because of funding.

With our systems in the freezer in the last 10 years, we engaged minimally. We are now setting up a structured public education initiative tailored along a programme called ‘‘bio aware’’ that was launched in 2008 by President William Ruto when he was Minister for Agriculture.

It will have custom-made messages for each player in the biotech conversation.

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