GMO maize field trials renew career hopes for biotechnology students

A protest march in Nairobi last year against genetically modified crops. PHOTO | FILE
A protest march in Nairobi last year against genetically modified crops. PHOTO | FILE 

When Ngure Mutero was five months into completion of his biotechnology degree, the Health ministry imposed a ban on Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops in Kenya. This was devastating news.

After years of studying biotechnology, his skills would have gone to waste following the ban on use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products in Kenya.

Despite the ban, Mr Mutero who was doing undergraduate studies at the Kenyatta University enrolled for a Master’s degree, hoping that there would be a policy change.

“As a biotechnology student, the news on the ban of GMO imports was devastating and I felt hopeless that all that I had studied would go to waste,” he said.

As the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) granted a conditional approval for the environmental release of biotech maize (BT MON 810) last week and plans to issue its verdict on genetically-modified cotton next month, Mr Mutero is hopeful.


However, the NBA’s chief executive officer Willy Tonui was quick to add that the authority has only granted permission for the environmental release, but the genetically modified maize cannot be cultivated yet or commercialised.

“The authority has granted a conditional approval only for environmental release for the purpose of conducting National Performance Trials and collecting analysis data, but not for cultivation, importation or placing in the market,” said Mr Tonui.

But despite the NBA’s cautionary note, the approval, to Mr Mutero is one small but vital step for GMO proponents and a giant leap for Kenya.

Dr Joel Ochieng’, the secretary-general of the Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium welcomed the decision by NBA, conditions notwithstanding, saying it gives a ray of hope to students of biotechnology, whose careers have been hanging in the balance as they could not apply the skills learnt.

He pointed out that university intakes for biotechnology courses dropped significantly following the GMO ban in 2012 as students were discouraged from studying a course whose practical application was not guaranteed.

Dr Ochieng’ said more than five Kenyan universities offer degree courses in biotechnology, enrolling students who get very high grades in secondary schools and a total ban on GMO would mean that these students seek jobs in alternative fields.

“When we restrict GMOs and we have students who are pursuing those courses, it creates an impression in their minds that what they are doing is useless since they cannot execute what they were taught anywhere within the country,” he said.

In 2014, student admission to biotechnology course stood at 1,872 with 29 learners switching to other fields, underlining waning interest in the programme. In 2011, only three students made the switch.

The conditional approval comes almost a year after the Kenya Agricultural Research Organisation (Kalro) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) applied for the environmental release, cultivation, and placing on the market the GMO crops.

Mr Tonui said that prior to the seed trials, the applicants will have to conduct an environmental impact assessment and submit the report to the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) before their request is considered.   

The environmental assessment is aimed at highlighting the impact of the crop on the surroundings, the views of the people in regard to the GMO crops as well as the opinions of the decision-makers in different counties concerning the crop.

During the field trials, the NBA will compare between the conventional seed varieties and the genetically-modified ones to determine changes in nutritional composition, yield performance and pest tolerance.

“We will use these parameters to determine the suitability of the biotech seeds,” said Mr Tonui in an interview with the Business Daily.

Kalro and AATF are also be required to provide detailed biosafety stewardship programme and monitoring roadmap to the NBA. The trial crops are planted in Kalro farms across the country.

Dr Ochieng’ said some of the NBA conditions, such as complying with the existing laws are tricky.

“When you say that the ban has been lifted, but there are conditions tied to it, especially on compliance with the law, it is as good as the permission has not been granted since it will take us back to the restrictions guiding the ban currently,” he said.

The approval may be good news to biotechnology students, but not to organic farmers and baby corn exporters to Europe.

The Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, an anti GMO lobby faulted the field trials, pointing out that it was not handled properly as many Kenyans, consumers of these food, were not involved in decision making.

“In developed nations, members are informed of the panel of experts who sat in the board to make a decision. The NBA has not revealed the experts who reached the decision, hence bringing to question the transparency of the process,” said Wanjiru Kamau, spokesperson of the organisation.

Ms Kamau said the NBA should have made its decision public to make Kenyans aware before allowing the environmental release for the biotech maize.

She raised concern that maize being an open pollination crop, the field trials will affect the conventional crop through transfer of pollen, a move that is likely to hit organic farmers who export baby corns to Europe.

“Most of our customers require non-GMO products and the field trials are going to contaminate the baby corns that organic farmers grow, hence our produce is likely to be rejected,” she said.

“This is a corporate move that is not aimed at solving Kenya’s food security problem, but rather to benefit the commercial interests of a few people,” she added.

GMO critics argue that the crop will unlikely boost food security and their introduction in the Kenyan market is not beneficial.

Ms Kamau noted that South Africa, which grows GM commercial maize has been hit by maize shortage resulting from the drought that has hit the country.

The NBA said the approval of biotech maize was informed by the outcome of food safety assessments, socio-economic issues, environmental risk assessments and analysis of public comments.

The application was subjected to a science-based review by the authority, government agencies and independent experts to ascertain that the GMO crop is safe for human and animal health.

The conditional approval by the biosafety regulator gives the green light for trials to be conducted nationwide by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and other government agencies.

The trials will take up to two years. After trials, seed multiplication and supply will be conducted, paving the way for large scale commercial farming of the GMO crop in Kenya for the first time, if NBA gets satisfied with the trial outcomes.

The pro and anti-GMOs campaigners have attracted millions of shillings from the multinational companies to promote their interests.

Kalro, which is a state agency, has accused multinational agrochemical companies of sponsoring anti-GMO campaigns in Kenya for fear of losing their niche market if the biotech is adopted.

Eliud Kireger, the director-general of Kalro said multinational drug makers have poured millions of shillings in the country to sponsor campaigns against the adoption of biotech crops.

Mr Kireger said that biotech crops do not require the use of pesticides and other chemicals since they are resistant to pests and diseases, noting that most of the ailments that Kenyans have contracted are as a result of the continuous use of chemicals in farms.

He said that the aflatoxin in maize, which has been linked to cancer, is spread when the maize cob is raptured by insects, allowing the moulds that cause the infection to penetrate the grain at the formation stage.

The biotech maize is a combination of the conventional drought resistant seed that is infused with the GMO gene that makes it resistant to pests.

Kalro, which has been pushing for the introduction of GMO crops, said that the modified maize varieties have the ability to withstand the stalk borers that damages crops.

“The GMO seeds are resistant to stalkborers and this will eliminate the use of pesticides in curbing the losses and aflatoxin menace that they cause,” Mr Kireger said.

Kenya is one of the world’s hotspots for aflatoxins. Aflatoxin contamination of food grain and feed has become a major concern as a result of its negative impact on health, trade, and food security.

Since 2004, the country has suffered severe outbreaks of illness from aflatoxin with at least 100 people dying in 2004 alone.

Scientists have linked aflatoxin to liver cancer, resulting from the poison that it ejects from the grain.

The journey to the production of the GM maize started in 2007 with the establishment of the laboratory at the defunct Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, which has since been rebranded Kalro. The seeds have been undergoing research.