The Kenyan government may be pushed into reconsidering its hardline stance on genetically modified (GM) foods, as the technology appears to be winning support from farmers struggling to deal with climate stresses.
Between 2009 and 2012, Kenya's National Biosafety Authority (NBA) allowed humanitarian agencies to import GM products to be distributed as food aid during the drought season.
But in November 2012, the government slapped a ban on GM products following the publication of a study in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal alleging that GM maize caused cancerous tumours in mice.
There are signs that Kenya may now be preparing to revise its stance on GM foods again, since the study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini et al was retracted by the journal in November 2013.
The Kenyan government is not opposed to biotechnology, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Felix Kosgey told Thomson Reuters Foundation last month on the sidelines of the launch of the African Plant Breeding Academy at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) in Nairobi.
Kosgey described the retraction of the Seralini report as "good for Africa", underlining that the continent needs to understand which technologies are useful and which are harmful. "Kenya will continue adopting the good traits in GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and discard the bad ones," he said.
For now, the sale, distribution or consumption of GM products remains illegal in Kenya, according to an NBA spokesperson.
Since it was set up in 2009, the NBA approved 27 applications of GM products for importation and cross-border movement into East Africa through Kenya, but these activities were suspended in 2012.
However, the government has continued to fund biotechnology research, including on GMOs, through the National Council for Science and Technology.
RURAL FOOD PROBLEMS
Meanwhile, civic leaders in arid parts of the country are encouraging farmers to start growing GM crops in an effort to shore up the rural food basket.
Charles Waturu of the state-backed BT Cotton project at Kari Thika - which is conducting confined field trials on a transgenic cotton variety due to be released to farmers in 2014 - said there is a growing appetite for GM crops in Kenya's driest counties because of their potential to improve food security.
Changes in how local administrations work outside Nairobi may also provide clues as to why GMOs seem to be gathering support in rural areas.
Under Kenya's new constitution, introduced in August 2010, county governments can bring in their own legislation to push forward local development agendas and raise levies.
This has enabled some agriculturally productive regions to take advantage of drier areas by charging taxes on the distance food is transported, explained Odenda Lumumba, national coordinator for the Kenya Land Alliance.
Another side-effect of devolution is that more Kenyans are choosing to invest in their own counties, Lumumba noted. This is boosting rural populations and putting pressure on arable land due to competition between property developers and farmers.
It is also causing disruption to the rural food chain. Poor Kenyans must foot the additional cost of more expensive food or invent new ways to feed themselves, Lumumba said.
GM YIELDS 'HIGHER'
"Genetically modified crops can be a game changer in reducing food insecurity because they have higher yields," said Margaret Karembu of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agriculture Biotechnology.
According to Karembu, over 3.8 million Kenyans are chronically malnourished, while more than 15 million face hunger from time to time. GM crops can increase yields by 15 to 25 percent per acre compared to conventional varieties, she noted.
Said Silim, regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), said researchers are striving to improve crop yields, including through the use of GM techniques. "But the technologies should be safe," he stressed.
By no means all Kenyans are yet convinced of the benefits of GM crops.
Organic farmer Justus Lavi from Kilome village in lower eastern Kenya is afraid they could destroy indigenous farming. "What arid Kenya needs are technologies such as water harvesting to feed rural agriculture," he said.
Others like Wanjiru Kamau of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) insist there is no evidence showing GM crops increase yields, while warning they could foster the emergence of super-pests.
GMOs also carry environmental risks such as a loss of biodiversity, and the possibility of contaminating the food chain, Kamau added.
"Global competition for market share is the driver behind GMOs - not to really address food insecurity," she said.
For now, it remains unclear whether the pro- or anti-GM camp will win out in Kenya. But as peasant farmers find it tougher to feed their families, the lure of GM crops appears to be growing in poorer rural areas at least.
Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.