Role of experts in Kenya’s GMO discourse cannot be gainsaid


In conducting a safety assessment of GMOs, the aim is to reduce the potential of introducing or transferring toxic compounds, anti-nutrients, or allergenic elements from one species to another. FILE PHOTO | POOL

In a recent opinion article the MP for Gatundu South, who serves on the parliamentary departmental committee on agriculture and livestock, made a case for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as an additional weapon in our food security armoury.

It was apparent from the article that he understands biotechnology and how it fits into the bigger narrative on food security.

It was encouraging to note that these lawmakers engaged experts to better understand this complex subject.

It is critical that our lawmakers and policymakers make evidence-based policy decisions devoid of individual biases and interests.

When decisions are made objectively it makes it easier to rationalise and explain to the public why and how the decisions were arrived at, thus enhancing trust and goodwill.

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As things stand, the lack of basic knowledge and understanding as well as widespread disinformation and misinformation on GMOs and biotechnology makes the task of educating the public an onerous one.

The extent of the task at hand is typified by some of the questions I have personally encountered even from a well-educated citizenry.

I have been asked questions like are processed foods GMOs; are those wholesome looking vegetables and fruits in the supermarkets GMOs; are broiler chicken GMOs; can one differentiate GM foods in the market?

These questions, to an expert, may sound simple but it is exactly what the public grapples with, pointing to the informational gap confronting the government and those knowledgeable on the topic.

Kenya enacted the Biosafety Act of 2009 to govern the safe application, adoption, and exploitation of biotechnology for the public good.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a select number of crops have been genetically engineered and approved for food, feed and other non-food purposes in various jurisdictions globally, and even fewer among these have been commercialised.

In Kenya, GM cotton was approved in 2019 and GM maize is awaiting commercialisation.

Genetically modified crops worldwide have been engineered to express a specific trait – a certain beneficial characteristic – but some combine multiple traits.

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Common commercial traits for GM crops include insect resistance; tolerance to stresses like drought, temperature, salinity, flooding etc.; modified quality attributes e.g., anti-allergen, non-browning, nutritionally enhanced etc.; disease resistance; nematode resistance; enhanced yield.

The question of whether we should fully embrace GM technology should be guided by informed policy and public discourse; and therein lies our challenge.