17 December 2011

Kenya: Give Biotech Scientists the Benefit of the Doubt


A day out with scientists isn't quite anyone's idea of fun. But last Wednesday, I found it surprisingly enjoyable visiting with Dr James Gethi of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and Dr Stephen Mugo of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) on their research field in Kiboko in Ukambani.

With 52 years of crop breeding experience between them, Dr Gethi and Dr Mugo have a way of explaining complex scientific terminology like one would do to a five-year-old.

More importantly, the two gentlemen see themselves as part of the solution to one of Kenya's long-standing problems: hunger.

For the past four years, they have been hard at work developing a maize variety that can withstand drought with a helping hand from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and agribusiness firm Monsanto.

Similar research under the ambitious project known as Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) is being undertaken in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. The Kenyan project is only in the second phase of field trials and is not expected to yield the super maize seed until 2017.

But Dr Gethi and Dr Mugo are extremely patient and disciplined souls. They believe they have already learnt enough from the first two harvests from their experimental farm to be positive about a breakthrough.

Like all scientists, they can't wait for the Eureka moment and the sense of personal fulfilment that normally comes with it. But it is the opportunity of being part of efforts to transform agriculture in the country's mean dry lands and solve the chronic food security problems that most satisfies them.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation has negotiated a royalty fees waiver with Monsanto, which means that the super maize seed will be available in the local market at an affordable price for small-scale farmers.

However, the scientists' optimism is tempered with a sense of frustration -- at being somewhat unloved and unappreciated. They fear that their work might run into the same headwinds of myth, scare mongering, political rhetoric and corporate wars that have in the past characterised public debates on biotechnology in the country.

"It is like you come to me for a solution that can transform lives but when I provide it you turn on me with a whip," said Dr Gethi.

That got me thinking. Granted, legitimate health, environmental and ethical concerns remain about biotechnology. But isn't it about time we at least gave these scientists the benefit of the doubt?

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