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Scientists' plan to build confidence around GMOs - VIDEO

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Scientists say there is a need to improve research communication. PHOTO | POOL

The approval of genetically modified products in Kenya has ignited a significant debate, characterised by divergent opinions mainly arising from health fears, socioeconomic considerations and political interests.

Scientists have pulled all the stops to defend the technology that they term a game-changer for the country’s food security.

Whereas the scholars have put up a spirited fight to explain how safe the technology is, those opposed to it claim GMO foods are not fit for consumption and that the country is not ready for this technology that has been in existence for the last 26 years.

Since President William Ruto lifted the ban on the cultivation and importation of GMOs in October, the debate has been dominated by experts in genetic engineering versus NGOs and politicians.

The Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium (KUBICO), an umbrella body bringing together all the scientists in the biotechnology space from the institutions of higher learning, says those opposed to the technology have used all the negative myths to communicate their message to the public.

One of the common myths about GMOs is that it causes cancer as these foods have a direct impact on human beings.

The scientists say the available data from peer-reviewed journals do not show any adverse effects of biotechnology maize and that there has been no connection between cancer and this technology.

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John Mitema, an international reviewer of scientific journals and the chair of the Bomet University council says a lot of research has been done on mammals and that there is no documented evidence that showed any link between cancer and GMOs.

“GMO maize does not affect human beings as it is mainly used as a biological pesticide that controls stalk borer in the crop,” said Prof Mitema.

Peris Onono, executive dean school of Business at Kenyatta University says while irrigation is a problem in our agriculture in times of drought, and subsidy fertiliser has been used to solve soil nutrients, pests and diseases need to be addressed through technology to avert economic losses that farmers incur.

She said pests, especially the stalk borer are the source of loss and result in wastage of food that would go a long way to building food security.

Dr Onono said to build confidence in the use and lead to acceptance of GMOs in the country, Kenya should use the technology that is homegrown and avoid imports of these bioproducts.

“If we are to start planting GM food it has to be homegrown and tested so that the confidence of farmer and the confidence of the consumer is built because whatever is outside you might want to talk about it much and many people don’t have much information about it,” said Dr Onono.

She said the government should build capacity for research institutions to ensure the seed are propagated locally, which will give Kenyans opportunities to see how it is produced, a move that she says will remove the fears that people have built because of wrong information.

Prof Michieka Ratemo, the chair of the National Research Fund says GMO is a product of research that has taken years to develop

“We monitor what is done in the research and where there is something wrong we advise accordingly to ensure that the research does not pose danger to humans, water and soil,” said Prof Michieka.

He said there is a need to strengthen science communication in the country and break down the scientific jargon into a simple language that can be understood by ordinary Kenyans.

The anti-GMO activists say another danger of allowing these biotech crops is that it will impact negatively the country’s biodiversity, especially the indigenous seed.

“There is no known danger that GMO will cause in indigenous crops as scientists are only zeroing in on maize and that will not affect other crops,” said the professor.

Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua while opposing the importation of GMOs in the country, said farmers will not be able to replant their maize once they have harvested as the technology prohibits that.

However, scientists argue that the terminator technology, which stops the reproduction of seeds has never been used anywhere in the world and that it only stopped at the approval stage.

“It is not that GMO maize cannot be re-planted after harvesting, it can. The only problem is that the yields will not be more as it would have lost its hybrid vigour once it is replanted by farmers,” said Prof Richard Oduor, Registrar of Research, Innovation and Outreach at Kenyatta University.

There has also been the issue of the high cost of acquiring GM seed with the activists arguing that the prices are prohibitive to farmers.

Prof Oduor says the element of cost is a general problem as farmers have been buying hybrid seeds, which are equally expensive.

“People need to understand that the issue around prices is a factor of so many things, including the market forces of demand and supply.

The pricing is never a question, technology has been given royalty-free to us and besides, we are making it locally and the same dynamics that inform prices will also be used to arrive at the price of GMO seed,” he said.

ALSO READ: Duty-free GMO maize imports kick off today to tame inflation

GMO is a technology arrived at from the use of a bacteria found in the soil normally referred to as Bacillus thuringiensis. The bacteria has a gene that produces a toxin that specifically kills the stalk borer.

Scientists argue that instead of using the bacteria every time to spray the crops, they identified the gene from it and put it in the maize to make it insect protected.

The toxin is found in the maize sap, which kills the stem borer that tries to attack the crop.

They equate it to a method that is used in immunising children with the vaccine to build antibodies that will fight the infection when it tries to attack the baby.

The Kenyan Peasants League -a lobby group representing peasant farmers moved to court last month to challenge a cabinet directive.

The High Court suspended the government's decision to allow in duty-free genetically modified maize, dealing a blow to the State plan to curb the runaway inflation that has engulfed the country.

Judge Mugure Thande also temporarily barred the importation of GMO products, foods and materials by the government or any person either directly or indirectly.

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