A decision by the National Bio-Safety Authority (NBA), to approve open field trials for genetically modified (GM) cotton is bound to raise more confusion in an area that has been dogged by controversy.
There has been a push and pull regarding release of biotech maize for National Performance Trials even after the nods were signalled, casting doubt on whether cotton will get the green-light from the environmental watchdog.
The National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) approved the request by scientists for confined field trials, but had to subject the same to the Ministry of Agriculture for policy direction.
However, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett says the ministry is not better placed to give policy direction, throwing the ball back in the court of Nema.
“When it comes to giving policy direction, the ministry has no capacity to do so; it is Nema that is better placed to determine the impact of this crop on the environment, if any,” said Mr Bett.
Last week, the NBA allowed Monsanto Kenya Ltd to conduct field trials on GM cotton, but before carrying out the tests, they have to do an environmental impact assessment, which has to be approved by Nema.
“We wish to let the public know that NBA has approved the environmental release of the Bt cotton,” said Dr Willy Tonui, chief executive officer of NBA, in a statement.
Nema has told the Kenya Livestock and Research Organisation (Kalro) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), who had applied for the field trials, that they had to wait for the ministry to give the go-ahead.
The move could cause delays as the one being witnessed currently on the release of the GM maize for field trials. NBA, the sector regulator, says applicants have already raised concerns over the delays. “The applicants have told us that they should have started the field trials this month but they will not because of the policy direction that Nema is seeking from the Agriculture ministry,” said Dr Tonui.
Researchers will now have to wait until next year to perform the trials, if the government will allow them, now that the short rains season that they were banking on is passing.
If approved, the decision will effectively give the green-light for trials to be conducted nationwide by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and other government agencies.
The tests are expected to take up to two years. After trials, seed multiplication and supply will be conducted, paving the way for large scale commercial farming of GM crops in Kenya for the first time.
If trials reveal that the seeds meet expectations such as pest and drought resistance, then Kephis will go ahead and approve large scale cultivation.
AATF said it was targeting 2018 for commercialisation, but this could be delayed by the ongoing impasse.
Currently, Kenya is suffering from a serious shortage of cotton that has seen some factories close down for lack of raw material.
Foreign investors targeted by government for mass cotton production are reluctant to invest in the venture unless Kenya reverses the ban on GMO products as the firms have agreed to commit to the multi-billion-shilling venture if allowed to grow Bt cotton.