Scientists eagerly await verdict on GMOs ban

Friday September 12 2014

Mt Kenya Region Monsanto sales manager Peter Kiburi examines a double maize cob at Wambugu Agricultural Training Centre in Nyeri. FILE PHOTO | JAMES NGUNJIRI

Mt Kenya Region Monsanto sales manager Peter Kiburi examines a double maize cob at Wambugu Agricultural Training Centre in Nyeri. FILE PHOTO | JAMES NGUNJIRI NATION MEDIA GROUP

By JACQUELINE KUBANIA
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Scientists and investors in bio-technology sector are optimistic that the government will lift the current ban on GMOs.

The government is expected to make the decision in a month’s time.

The scientists who spoke at the African Food Security Conference and Agri-Exhibition in Nairobi this week were unanimous that traditional technologies will not feed the country’s rising population.

They added the technologies will continue to put Kenya’s farmers at a disadvantage in a world where new technologies are cutting costs and improving yields.

“The government has promised that it will give us a decision regarding the ban in a month’s time. We are optimistic that it will be positive decision that has the best interest of Kenyans at heart,” said Betty Kiplagat, the Corporate Affairs Lead East Africa at Monsanto.

The forum urged the government to embrace biotechnology to combat hunger and put money in farmers’ pockets.

“The solution to perennial food insecurity occasioned by land degradation, water shortage and rising diseases lies in Kenyans adopting new farming technologies,” said Dr Leena Trapathi, a plant biotechnologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

ESTABLISHED AUTHORITY

The subject of genetically modified foods in Kenya has remained touchy, surrounded by safety, ethical concerns and sometimes utter myth.

Currently, the importation of GMOs into the country remains illegal.

In acknowledgement of the harsh food realities facing the country, the government established the National Biosafety Authority in 2009 to regulate the research and sale of GMOs.

But in 2012, the Cabinet summarily banned the importation of GMOs, sparking concerns that the issue had been politicised and that the interests of the country had taken a back seat.

Proponents wonder why the government continues to ban GM imports yet the restriction was based on a paper (by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini), which has since been withdrawn.

The reason given for the ban was that GMOs have been linked to cancer, a claim that has been refuted by recognised authorities, including the World Health Organisation that has declared GM foods safe, saying that they “are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health”.

TAKING NOTICE

Out of the 27 countries in the world that have adopted GMOs, only three — Burkina Faso, South Africa and Sudan are in Africa.

While Burkina Faso and Sudan have only embraced the production of GM cotton, South Africa has jumped in head-long, dabbling in GM maize and soybean on top of the more conventional cotton.

Kenya, too, is beginning to take notice, authorising research into the genetic modification of cassava, maize and cotton with scientists coming up with high-yielding varieties.

“We have come up with a new variety from breeding the common potato with wild potatoes which are naturally resistant to blight,” Dr Eric Magembe from the International Potato Centre told the conference, adding that the variety is also high-yielding.