Women scientists are calling for the adoption of biotechnology to boost food security in the country.
Under the umbrella of Women for Biosciences Network, Dr Felister Makini, the deputy director general for crop research at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) said that women scientists can play a bigger role in helping female farmers in rural areas understand the technologies and exploit them for food security.
“The public rejects biotechnology because they don’t understand it and they only get negative information about it.
“We can unpack this technology in ways that help people change their attitude towards it and embrace it,” said Dr Makini during the opening session of a women in biosciences conference in Nairobi.
She noted that many people view biotechnology, which includes genetically modified organisms (GMO) as evil, not knowing that things like tissue culture that is now widely accepted (especially tissue culture bananas) is part of that technology.
Kenyan researchers have conducted (and continue to conduct) controlled field trials on various biotechnology crops including tests on maize and bananas to find pest and disease-resistant varieties.
In a Gazette Notice dated September 8, 2017, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) announced that in November 2016, it approved controlled field tests on genetically modified bananas.
If the trials succeed, the next breed of local bananas could be resistant to bacterial wilt. However, talks on genetically modified organisms have remained controversial, with many people insisting that they are harmful. This longstanding controversy stands in the way of releasing GMO crops to farmers to help boost food security.
“People have concluded that that GMOs are unhealthy, yet we know that such foods have been consumed in other countries for more than 50 years, and nobody has died from eating them.
“If they were bad, entire countries would have been wiped out. Why should we have people dying of hunger, and eating wild fruits and all manner of things to survive, yet we have an unused solution sitting in laboratories?
A PLACE IN FOOD SUFFICIENCY
“People should understand that GMOs have a place in food sufficiency. They may not be a panacea to all food problems, but they are definitely one of the major options in ensuring food sufficiency. All we need is for the public to give science a chance,” said Dr Makini, adding that problems like fall armyworm which is one of the major threats to food security in Kenya, could be dealt with once and for all through maize crop that is modified to be pest and disease-resistant.
“We have requested to be allowed to test BT maize varieties in different environments to see their performance, but we are stuck because we have not received permission,” she said.
In 2016, the National Bio-Safety Authority (NBA) approved conditional release of the BT maize. The release approved the maize variety (MON 810) for National Performance Trials (NPTs), but not for cultivation, importation or placement in the market as Kalro had requested.
However, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) is yet to give its approval more than two years down the line.
Field trials on BT maize in Kitale and Kiboko have shown resistance to stalk borer and fall armyworm, when compared to maize in adjacent fields.
“We have children, do we want to feed them with something that will harm them? Of course not! The public needs to understand this.
“We have done the science and tested it and we have regulators to make sure that any technology we come up with is good and safe.
“We don’t just do and release research for the sake of it. There is a lot of interrogation involved, for decades and beyond, to ensure safety before we release our findings,” she added, pleading the case for modified foods further.
The Director for International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter Dr Margaret Karembu also emphasised that women needed to help inform government policy on the role of biotechnology in food security because they and children are the most affected by drought and famine.
“Science has given us evidence that products that have gone through the regulatory process and are in the market are as safe as the conventional products,” she said.