Safety agency defies Mailu over GMO trials

National Biosafety Authority chief executive Willy Tonui. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Biosafety authority says field trials start October, putting it on a collision course with the Health ministry which stopped exercise.
  • Health Secretary Cleopa Mailu last October stopped the trails, arguing that fitness for GMO products for human health remains unknown.
  • Biosafety authority is the State body tasked with regulating biotechnology.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) has defied Health ministry and announced field trials for GMO crops will start on October.

Speaking in Kitale yesterday, NBA managing director Willy Tonui said the National Performance Trial (NPTs) for biotech maize and cotton is scheduled to start as soon as October.

This comes despite Health Secretary Cleopa Mailu last October stopping the trails, arguing that fitness for GMO products for human health remains unknown.

Dr Tonui was speaking after meeting stakeholders who included the Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation (Kalro) and African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) who had previously been issued with permits for GMO trials before they were stopped by Dr Mailu.

NBA is the State body tasked with regulating biotechnology.

“Just recently, we had a discussion with Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and I now want to confirm that we have the guidelines required for the release of biotech maize for field trials and there is no reason why NPTs should not start soon,” said Dr Tonui.

Dr Tonui said they had already reached an agreement on biotech cotton and that it would be rolled out in the next planting season. 

Dr Mailu in a letter to the Ministry of Environment last year said introduction of GMO in Kenya remained bound by a decision of the Cabinet meeting that banned imports of biotech foods.

He said the ban remained in force until a review and evaluation of scientific information on safety of GM foods on human health is undertaken.

Dr Mailu was responding to reports that local scientists had sought permits from the National Environmental Authority (Nema) to carry out GM maize trials in selected sites.

“It should be noted that the application of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) licence to conduct National Performance Trials (NPTs) is a step towards final application for release of the biotech maize into the market for either consumption or cultivation,” he said then.

Agriculture secretary Willy Bett said in March that Kenya was yet to put in place the mechanism that would ensure the GMO seed is not cross-pollinated to ordinary maize during trials.

He further said research has to be done to address the risk that GMO maize can have on the environment before it is released for trials.

“Kenya is still one of the countries that still believe we should be a GMO free state,” Mr Bett said during the interview.

Controlled trials

The trials, which were expected to take two years, were to be conducted nationwide at the Kephis confined fields and inspected by other government agencies.

During the field trials, Kephis was to compare the conventional seed varieties with the genetically-modified ones with a view to determining changes in nutritional composition, yield performance and pest tolerance.

Kenya imposed a ban on GMO crops in November, 2012, citing danger to public health, a decision that locked out many countries, including South Africa, from exporting maize to Kenya.

The taskforce formed to establish the safety of GMO crops following the ban, and influenced by a scientific journal that linked GMO crops to cancer, recommended the lifting of the prohibition on a case by case basis.

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