Two state agencies differ on genetically modified maize


National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) Director General Prof Geoffrey Wahungu. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Two State bodies are reading from different scripts in regard to testing and adoption of genetically modified maize.

Whereas the National Biosafety Authority says research and field trials should go on, the National Environmental Authority (Nema) overrules this, insisting that safety issues must be guaranteed.

The biosafety authority reads mischief in Nema’s “highhandedness”, saying field trials did not amount to commercialisation since the crops were for research.

Biosafety authority chief executive Willy Tonui defended the decision to issue a licence for controlled national field trials (NFT), saying earlier tests by various State agencies and independent entities had confirmed that genetically modified maize is safe for human and animal consumption.

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“The genetically modified products assessed and approved by NBA are not harmful to humans, animals or the environment. When such products are approved, they will have a unique NBA approval number and label on the packets for consumer information and ease of traceability,” said the authority.

He added: “Field trials shall only be conducted in isolated and secure sites, ensuring no cross-pollination with other maize varieties. The modified maize will only be available in the Kenyan market, or openly cultivated, after full authorisation by NBA”.

The authority said it conducted further tests on maize where it confirmed that the locally developed GM crop did not contain toxic elements or allergenic properties that are different from conventional maize.

“The only biosafety data requirement on the applicant during field testing was for them to generate compositional data of locally generated maize varieties in different ecological zones and present this data to the authority for further consideration before approval for commercialisation,” said Dr Tonui.

The authority was reacting to last Monday’s stand by Nema that overruled field trials of genetically modified crops before their safety is ascertained.

Nema director general Geoffrey Wahungu said they first needed safety assurance on the drought and disease resistant maize, which has had high yields during trials at farms owned by Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation (Karlo).

The director said experimental designs for the identified field trials must first be presented for scrutiny.

The biosafety authority’s board of directors approved environmental release of MON 810 in maize varieties on January 15 last year, where field trials were to be closely supervised by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service.

Its proponents — Kalro and the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation — were instructed to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment of all field sites and submit the same to Nema for review and approval.

The biosafety authority said that, at the end of the trial, the maize harvest would be subjected to stringent tests as per the authority’s guidelines. The tests would conform to food safety assessments derived from genetically modified crops (KS CAC/GL 45-2003) on Kenyan MON 810 maize varieties.

The modified maize reportedly performed well during confined trials, raising hopes that farmers would soon access the high-yielding, disease and drought resistant seed varieties.

If the harvests are approved, and region-specific maize seeds are identified, it would unlock a new GM seed market in East Africa.

This would enhance farmers’ ability to feed themselves and supply local markets, ending the perennial cycle of poverty associated with semi-arid and arid regions.

The biosafety authority boss said once commercialised, GM maize would have ample consumer information printed on its packets.