Nema makes a U-turn on GMO field trials directive

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  

The National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) has ruled out immediate trials for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in Kenya with its new directive that requires the Agriculture ministry to draft policy framework.

The agency had earlier approved the National Performance Trials (NPT) giving researchers the green light to start field trials at the selected farms.

But in a letter to the two applicants, Kenya Livestock and Research Organisation (Kalro) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Nema said the researchers will have to wait until the ministry gives a go-ahead.

National Bio-safety Authority (NBA), the sector regulator, said the applicants have already raised concerns over the delays occasioned by Nema in seeking clarification from the ministry.

“The applicants have told us that they should have started the field trials this month but they will not because of the policy direction that Nema is seeking from the Ministry of Agriculture,” said Willy Tonui, NBA chief executive officer.

If approved, the decision would effectively give the green light for trials to be conducted nationwide by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and other government agencies. The period of the trials is expected to take up to two years.

After trials, seed multiplication and supply will be conducted, paving the way for large scale commercial farming of GMO crops in Kenya for the first time.

Kephis managing director Esther Kimani told the Business Daily that they are ready to start the trials once they have received a notification from Nema.

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 that was closely supervised by NBA.

The ban on GMOs in the country was effected in 2012 when a task force formed by then Public Health minister Beth Mugo declared that GMO foods were unfit for human consumption, basing the decision on earlier studies that linked the crops to cancerous tumours in rats.

But a global scientific journal retracted an article that it had published earlier that linked genetically modified food to cancer, prompting GMO proponents to call for the lifting of the ban.

The ban on importation of the GM products in the country is still in force and it can only be lifted by Health Cabinet secretary. A section of farmers in the country have held demonstrations in the past in protest arguing that studies have linked the foods to cancer.

Efforts to reach Nema for comment were futile as they did not respond to our calls by the time of going to press.