By lifting the ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) the Cabinet has removed a glaring decade-long contradiction in Kenya’s biotechnology policy.
This is the political will that has been lacking since 2012 when the Cabinet banned the importation of foods and feed products derived from GM technology, and yet we had a biotechnology policy and biosafety law to guide its development and safe application. Kenya has a progressive biosafety system and a vibrant biotech research community that had been stymied by this ban.
We are only the second country in Africa after Nigeria that has published guidelines for genome editing technology – considered a more advanced biotech technique. Because of the ban, we have essentially lost 10 years in biotech progression. Going forward we must therefore learn from our past missteps and empower our regulators and scientists for informed decisions.
Recently, President Joseph Biden of the USA, through an Executive Order, outlined his administration’s vision to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing innovations to drive what he refers to as a bioeconomy. This will position and entrench the US as a leader in bioinnovation, technologically and commercially.
The US is already a leader in biotechnology and biomanufacturing, and this was apparent as the world wrestled Covid-19. The US harnessed the power of biotechnology and biomanufacturing in leading the rest of the world in developing and producing diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines that were critical in saving lives against a devastating once-in-a-century pandemic.
The FAO defines bioeconomy as "knowledge-based production and the use of biological resources, processes and methods to provide goods and services in a sustainable manner in all economic sectors”. Kenya has the biological resources, decent research and innovation capacity but that requires more investments, knowledge and intellectual assets, and a nascent innovation infrastructure and ecosystem that has potential to mature further.
However, we have been unable to fully tap into biotechnology and similar technologies to translate our biological resources into information, products, processes and services that would drive economic growth.
Kenya can learn from and seek bilateral cooperation with the US in order to develop and harness the benefits of a flourishing bioeconomy that can provide innovative solutions not only for food security and agriculture, but also in health and energy as well as climate change adaptation.
We should not be left behind as the world makes strides into the century of biology. We have an opportunity to leapfrog and fully embrace the possibilities of a thriving bioeconomy. Over to you President William Ruto.
The writer is a researcher and food security expert. [email protected]