Kenya says more tests and safeguards are needed before genetically modified (GM) maize seeds can be grown commercially in the country.
In a decision issued today, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) approved the crop's environmental release only for field trials and under conditions.
"We are taking all the precautionary measures to ensure the variety is safe for human consumption and for the environment," the NBA's CEO, Willy Tonui, tells SciDev.Net.
The NBA ruled on an authorisation request filed in June 2015 by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation for maize seeds modified to be resistant to insect pests, manufactured by the company Monsanto under the name MON810.
"The applicants have worked systematically, taking safety measures in their confined field trial tests for seven years," Tonui says. They are now required to work with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service to conduct trials to test whether the new variety is better than existing ones, for example in terms of nutritional value, he adds.
While GM crop advocates were hoping that the state body would approve the seeds' release on the market, the agency's approval does not extend to the seeds' cultivation, importation or sale.
The authority granted a conditional approval for environmental release only "for the purpose of conducting National Performance Trials and collecting compositional analysis data", the NBA writes in a statement.
Although limited, this approval is good news for scientists, says Richard Oduor, a plant geneticist at Kenyatta University who was not involved in the application.
Oduor adds that the decision will help spur GM technology in Kenya, and shows the importance of the NBA's role. The agency has "validated that the country has regulatory capacity," he says. "Despite some resistance that GMOs face, we have a neutral body that will be making science-based decisions."
In contrast, he says, a downright rejection would have demotivated researchers and students in Kenya, and been a "mockery to the government" that funds the research and development of GM sweet potatoes, for example.
But Peter Mokaya, CEO of Kenya's Organic Consumers Alliance, says Kenya has not yet built enough capacity to introduce GM technology that can yield safe products. "We should be very cautious and do more research to validate previous studies on safety concerns of GMOs," he tells SciDev.Net.
Mokaya says Kenya could also improve food security through other means than GM technology, such as curbing post-harvest losses, which he says are a significant problem.
Justus Mwololo, secretary-general of the Kenya Small-Scale Farmers Forum, says the majority of smallholder farmers in Kenya are unaware of GM crops and their properties. Mwololo, who farms maize in eastern Kenya, adds that farmers would need more information about the technology before they are willing to use it.
In previous years, the NBA approved several confined field trials of GM organisms, and 'contained use research activities' such as trials in a lab or greenhouse. Other African countries, including Burkina Faso, South Africa and Sudan, have already authorised the sale of GM crops.
Additional countries, including neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, are considering setting up a regulatory body similar to the NBA, and Kenya's stance could influence them, Oduor says.
The NBA is also examining a similar application to grow a pest-resistant GM cotton.