Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ban on GM products brave but will it work?

In an unprecedented move, Public Health Minister Beth Mugo has banned the importation of genetically modified products, implementing a government decision to that effect.

The ban was proposed a few weeks ago by the Cabinet following a study by French scientists showing that transgenic maize caused cancer in rats, implying the same could happen to humans.

The French study, which has been the subject of intense debate both in Kenya and abroad, has polarised traditional supporters of the technology and diehard opponents.

What was lacking in the local debate was an impartial voice from the National Biosafety Authority, which has the mandate to advise the government and the public on such matters.

In the absence of such advice, the minister’s directive, while brave and commendable, may be difficult to implement for a number of reasons.

First, despite a May 25 legal notice requiring that genetically modified foods imported and marketed in the country be labelled as such, this is not happening, and it is difficult to identify them.

The alternative may be to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of collecting high-risk products such as those containing soya or canola, and sending them to independent laboratories for analysis.

The minister also promised to ensure that local experts carry out studies to determine the health safety of GMOs.

However, she may find it difficult to identify institutions and individuals who are not likely to be compromised by the powerful agribusiness transnationals whose products they are supposed to evaluate.

What the minister has done is to set up a David and Goliath contest, with her unit facing the might of powerful interests that have the full backing of their equally formidable governments.

We wish her all the luck.

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