25 October 2015

Kenya: Debate Rages After Ruto Announces Plan to Lift Ban on GM Food

Photo: Flickr
Young maize growing on a farm in the Drakensberg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

A recent announcement that the government will lift the ban on genetically modified food has rekindled the debate on whether GMOs are the solution to the country's food crisis.

In August, Deputy President William Ruto said the ban would be lifted in two months.

Since then, some farmers' groups have been protesting in different parts of the country. One of the lobbies even went to court.

The Kenya Small-Scale Farmers has been seeking an order from the High Court to stop the government from importing GM food, following Mr Ruto's remarks.

The order was, however, not issued, after the court ruled that the farmers did not present a strong case.

Protests over the lifting of the ban have been so intense that some scientists have asked the government to investigate sources of funds for organisations engaged in the debate to adopt or reject GM crops.


Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium Secretary-General Joel Ochieng was quoted last week saying donor funds, as opposed to facts, were influencing those opposed to the technology.

The scientists said some groups might be pushing for the interests of their donor agencies, instead of relying on proven evidence to influence policy.

Kenya has for several years been under pressure to import GM maize and cotton, among other crops.

Reason? The food security outlook in Kenya has been worrying.

According to the World Food Programme report of 2014, more than 50 per cent of the country is food insecure, with 3.5 million going hungry or being malnourished.

This was not the case in the 1960s, when Kenya gained independence. At the time, the country could comfortably feed its population of more than 8 million.

What happened? And does the country have the capacity to produce enough food for the population?

"We have the capacity to produce food but the potential remains unexploited due to lack of tools," said Dr Charles Nderito, director of the Horticulture Research Institute at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro). First, Kenya relies on rain-fed agriculture. Owing to climate change, rain is not sufficient to grow all the foods.

"Our solution lies in GMOs," said Dr Nderito.

Like Dr Nderito, several scientists are of the view that GM crops can help in tackling food deficiency in the country.

However, Organic Consumers Alliance National Coordinator Peter Mokaya scoffed at the idea, saying: "The worst mistake Kenya can make is to introduce GMOs. Don't be cheated ... GMOs cannot create food security. This is just a political and marketing strategy."

The Kenya National Farmers Federation (Kenaff) said the country could not achieve food security without using modern technology, of which GMOs are a part.

Kenaff CEO John Mutunga said farmers were ready to adopt any beneficial innovation, adding that "the same should be backed by scientifically founded evidence, which leaves no room for questioning and biases".

On this basis, Dr Mutunga has asked the government to undertake studies to guide the country further on GMOs, amid claims by some experts that they are not environmentally friendly and cause cancer.

The Kenaff boss said such studies should involve all affected and interested parties for there to be consensus on the findings.

"It is important to be aware of vested interests in GMO matters. The public interest should guide the process," he said.

In Africa, only South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan have adopted GM food. Dr Mutunga said countries such as Russia, New Zealand and Germany had, however, banned both the growing and commercialisation of GM crops and food.

"The question here would be: What has been the basis of adoption or rejection of GMOs by these countries? As a country, adoption for the sake of it or because others have done so would only be misleading," he said.

Dr Nderito, whose organisation, Kalro, is a government establishment, had already introduced some varieties of GM crops, which are being grown on trial basis.

The crops include bt-maize at Kalro's Kiboko Station in Makueni and bt-cotton in Mwea, Kirinyaga County. Both areas are dry, and the research is aimed at evaluating the performance of relevant GM crops under drought conditions in the country.

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