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Economy

Ban on genetically modified maize to stay despite crisis

The ban was imposed in 2012 after a scientific journal linked genetically modified foods to tumours in rats. The journal was later recalled. PHOTO | FILE
An abstract depiction of genetic engineering: The ban was imposed in 2012 after a scientific journal linked genetically modified foods to tumours in rats. The journal was later recalled. PHOTO | FILE 

The government will not lift an importation ban on genetically modified maize, despite an acute shortage of the grain in Kenya and neighbouring countries.

Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett says the authorities are instead deciding on where to source the traditional staple when imports are required.

This comes amid reports that the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Biosafety Authority and other stakeholders met last month to prepare a memorandum for presentation to the Cabinet on possible lifting of the ban.

“We will not lift the ban any time soon to allow GMO maize into the country. In any case, we are scouting around to see where we shall get white non-GMO maize,” Mr Bett told the Sunday Nation.

A task force formed to look into the safety of genetically modified foods submitted its report to Parliament in 2015. The report, forwarded to the Cabinet, has been gathering dust for about two years now.

The report had recommended lifting of the ban on a case-by-case basis, and called for importation of modified food in times of crisis — but with the advice of the biosafety authority.

A source at the meeting, who is not authorised to speak to the media, said senior ministry officials inquired about the safety of genetically modified food should the ban be lifted.

“We met with officials of the Agriculture ministry and discussed whether we should lift the import ban on genetically modified maize to avert a looming crisis caused by the current shortage,” said the official.

The ban was imposed in 2012 after a scientific journal linked genetically modified foods to tumours in rats. The journal was later recalled.

Last year, Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu turned down applications by scientists to conduct field trials on biotech maize. He cited the import ban.

Kenya normally sources grain from Uganda and Tanzania to bridge deficits in production. But Uganda has restricted export of maize, while Tanzania did not register a good crop last season.

The little maize available in the region is also finding its way to South Sudan where it is fetching better prices.

Scientists have warned that Kenya stands to lose millions of shillings in donor funding following the move by the government to stop research on biotechnology.

The Kenya Agriculture Research and Livestock Organisation (Kalro) says donors could divert the money for research in biotechnology in Kenya to other countries that have embraced the technology.

Kalro director general Eliud Kirger says his organisation receives an average of Sh300 million a year, while universities and other institutions of higher learning get more than a billion shillings in funding.

“External support on biotechnology will not come to Kenya. It will go to countries that are championing the technology,” said Dr Kireger in a Press interview recently.

Regionally, Tanzania and Uganda are mulling over establishment of biotech crops following adoption of the necessary legislation.

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