The government says it will publish biotechnology guidelines in two months, setting the country on course to join developing countries planting genetically modified crops.
President Kibaki signed the Biosafety Act in February 2009 but the law needed guidelines to facilitate implementation. Without them, the government can approve applications for biotechnology products only for research trials.
National Biosafety Authority acting chief executive Roy Mugiira says indecision on labelling of genetically modified products should and how much application fees the authority should charge dragged formulation of the regulations.
“We are working with the State Law Office because we need to prescribe packaging that will be acceptable because even globally labelling of genetically modified products remains contentious,” Dr Mugiira said.
“We will borrow from Kenya Bureau of Standards because it already has standards of packaging and labelling of biotechnology products.”
Many consumers insist on their right to know what they are eating and their right to choose. Many governments have begun to heed and have either implemented labelling regulations or are working on them.
Dr Mugiira said the authority has not authorised importation of any genetically modified material for release into the environment. “I have received many applications in my office but I am telling them to wait until regulations are in place,” he said.
Dr Mugiira said Africa cannot continue to ignore biotechnology. He said Kenya Agricultural Research Institute is at the forefront of biotechnology as it is developing biofortified sorghum with more nutrients.
It is modifying sorghum to reduce production of a chemical that makes it to have bitter taste.
Dr Mugiira said KARI would soon register a patent for a genetically modified technology. “KARI is at the forefront of developing certain technologies that in the next five to 10 years may be out being commercial products and therefore we need to see ourselves as originators of these technologies not only as recipients,” he said.
Scientists, agricultural organisations and policymakers have tried to introduce GMOs in Kenya since 1998. When the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was opened for signatures in 2000, Kenya was the first country to sign up.
The Biosafety Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.
In 2007, MP Davis Nakitare proposed a law to ban GMOs in Kenya, but the government torpedoed it. KARI has been carrying out laboratory and field research on transgenic maize, sweet potato, cassava and cotton crops and rinderpest vaccine.
Some farmers’ organisations say Kenya should exhaust and maximise conventional agricultural production methods before embracing genetically modified crops. However, a senior manager at the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) said the technology should not be ignored, but its risks and benefits should be evaluated.
Seed Trade Association of Kenya executive officer Obongo Nyachae said the Act presents seed industry with an opportunity to innovate.
Speaking last week in Nairobi during the launch of Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/Genetically Modified Crops 2010, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) chairman Clive James said biotech crops accumulated hectarage have exceeded one billion in the last 14 years. ISAAA produces the report annually.