Kenya’s journey towards adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has been long and full of obstacles at each stage. It has been a case of being so near yet so far.
This year, President Uhuru Kenyatta led the Cabinet in approving commercialisation of GM cotton as he banks on it to meet one of its Big 4 Agenda- manufacturing.
However, cultivation of the biotechnology cotton, that was to start with the March rains, has run into headwinds after the environmental watchdog demanded a fresh impact assessment before the process can commence.
National Biotechnology Authority (NBA), which is the sector regulator, says the requirement by the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) for a fresh Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) before proceeding with cultivation will take the country two steps back in its GMO adoption journey.
Just this latest Nema requirement alone, they argue, will see October being the earliest time that GM cotton can be planted for field trials. This is months from the initial March date.
And amid the delay, there is a sense of frustration among stakeholders in the two-steps-forward,-three-steps-backward progress in the GMO journey. It is a regulatory dance that has been going on for decades now with little to show for progress.
“As a regulator we did what we were meant to do by granting permission for the planting, only for the proponents of this GMO cotton to be told that they need to conduct fresh EIA,” said chief executive officer of NBA Dorrington Ogoyi.
Long before GM cotton the country had started the GMO journey with maize in 2007. A laboratory was established at the defunct Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, which has since been rebranded Kalro. Its mandate was to undertake research on the modified seeds. It took a decade before the research was completed in 2017, showing that the maize trials was drought and insect-resistant and yielded more compared to conventional crop.
But the promising research was not enough to overcome the political undercurrent against the adoption of GMO. Five years before, the then Health Cabinet Minister Beth Mugo had banned GMO, linking it to cancer after a study, which has so far been retracted, claimed mice that were fed on GMO developed cancerous tumours.
Her statement provided fodder for anti-GMO activists who took to the streets to ensure that GM maize was a hot potato for public officials. The release of GM maize had been set for August 2016 where it was to undergo National Performance Trials (NPTs) before being commercialised. However, it was as blocked by then Health Secretary Cleopa Mailu in 2017.
Since then, GM maize research has been in a limbo, likely shelved because it is still an emotive subject.
But GM cotton has not roused such emotions, perhaps because unlike maize it is not ingested. Proponents of this cotton had banked on a presidential directive to by-pass this long regulatory process that saw the initial plans of having GM maize move to field trials stopped at this point by Nema.
Scientists have been conducting NPTs on cotton since 2018 following the intervention of State House after the initial attempts were stopped by the Ministry of Health and Nema.
The performance of this GM cotton, which is four times more yielding than the conventional one, has been a driving factor towards the adoption of Bt cotton, the genetically modified variety.
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya launched the process of commercialisation of Bt cotton in February.
The move was to see over 1,000 farmers start planting GM cotton in demonstration blocks on their farms. Following the Nema roadblock, the timelines set for adoption of this superior seed will be affected, leading to delays in rolling it countrywide.
The government is projecting that between 40,000 and 200,000 farmers will have taken up the GMO cotton by 2022 in order to boost textile sector in the country that has now collapsed for lack of raw material.
“The Cabinet has approved commercial farming of BT cotton hybrids following successful completion of field trials conducted over a period of five years,” State House said last December.
Mr Munya in February launched the cultivation of GM cotton in western Kenya, in a process that would have seen the crop rolled out in 24 counties across the country.
Nema is no stranger to coming in the way of GMO crops. In August 2018, the agency followed Mr Mailu’s earlier action and applied the brakes on the trials of GMO maize that was to be planted in confined fields.
The agency made an about-turn on the decision that they had reached allowing the trials of GM maize after pulling down the notice to that effect from their website. To date, the trials on these biotech maize is yet to take off.
But there is some hope. The approval of GM cotton also brings hope on the lifting of the ban on NPT on GM maize. For now, it looks that the country may have GM cotton before maize.
Last year President Kenyatta re-commissioned Rivatex Company to promote production of locally made products using cotton. Cotton production has been falling in the country since 1980s with Kenya relying on imports to bridge the deficit.
According to the directorate of fibre crops, Kenya requires 120,000 bales of lint per year, meaning that the country imports more than half of the required quantities to keep the factories running.
Kenya has a huge potential for cotton production. Although the country has more than 400,000 hectares of land suitable for cotton, less than 35,000 hectares are under the crop.
The country produces less than 12 million square metres of woven fabric per year, against a market demand of approximately 171 million square metres.
Textile mills are operating at about 45 percent capacity. Even if all textile factories were to operate at 100 percent capacity, this would produce 26.7 million square metres of fabric, which is only 15.6 percent of the demand.
There are about four active ginneries in the country: Meru, Baringo, Makueni and Kitui.
The directorate has recently been giving incentives to farmers, which include planting materials and good price for their produce when they harvest.
For instance, the directorate has increased the buying price per kilo of the crop from Sh46 to Sh52 for the same quantity.
It has also created a ready market for farmers by having them sign contracts with the ginneries, offering them purchase without delay after harvesting, thereby minimising losses and cutting storage costs.
Kenya’s foot-dragging on whether to commercialise GMOs may not only mean a loss of funding from donors, but if officials eventually decide that GMOs are safe—ostensibly after another country has successfully adopted the technology—Kenya would have to start all over again from the bottom of the research ladder.