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WAGA: Objection to GM crop is political, not scientific

Sunday December 14 2014

The Kenya Government’s objection to genetically modified organisms isn’t just perplexing and unfounded, but also economically unsound. Photo/FILE

The Kenya Government’s objection to genetically modified organisms isn’t just perplexing and unfounded, but also economically unsound. Photo/FILE 

WAGA ODONGO
By WAGA ODONGO
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The Kenya Government’s objection to genetically modified organisms isn’t just perplexing and unfounded, but also economically unsound.

That isn’t just my thinking, but that of Kiraitu Murungi, head of the Senate’s committee on agriculture, livestock and fisheries.

He was speaking at a book launch last week about the use of biotechnology in Africa.

I was impressed by the Senator’s announcement, because I had half-expected him to pander to ignorance by firmly sitting on the fence.

He didn’t, and asked the scientists gathered to send a petition to the Senate which he promised to support.

Genetically modified foods are safe. They are subjected to more scrutiny than other foods because of the fear surrounding them.

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In fact, GM is so safe that the same Kenyan government which has banned it is funding the development of at least 10 different transgenic crops in three Kenyan universities. Transgenic crops require transfer of genetic material across different species to create favourable qualities.

At the meeting last week, I realised that my approach to the issue had been wrong; biotechnology is about politics, not science. The science is sound and unimpeachable; the problem is the politics. So let’s talk about the politics.

There may be concerns about commercialisation of biotechnology, but these can be ironed out legislatively. There are also some who believe that adopting GM crops will result to the banning of Kenyan produce from European Union Markets.

This claim was rubbished by the EU ambassador to the country, Lodewjik Briet, recently. The EU is not GM-free, as GM opponents claim.

One of the anecdotes Senator Murungi regaled us at the book launch was the case of legislation in India, where the government banned GM crops and farmers simply smuggled the crops and began growing them.

By the time the government came round to this fact, the crops were already being consumed, so New Delhi was forced to support their legalisation.

The beauty of adopting GM is that we will loosen the limits of biogeography and expand cultivation zones.

Thanks to adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, Kisii is no longer the top banana producer in Kenya. It is number seven! The number one county in banana production is now Meru, the county Kiraitu Murungi represents.

The Senator isn’t the only official to come out in support of GM products. I have checked in the Nation Media Group library and Deputy President William Ruto has spoken out in favour of the matter at least four times. He is now in a position to do something about it.

Our stance mirrors that of the Tanzanian government, which maintains a ban on GMOs and yet sponsors students at doctorate level in biotechnology in Kenyan universities. Isn’t this madness?

Murungi told us of how, on a trip to China, Chinese researchers were unimpressed at the types of rice grown in Kenya and advised them to switch to newer enhanced varieties and enjoy “up to six times the current yield”.

When Russia realised that the research linking GM and cancer was bunkum, it immediately lifted its ban. While elected politicians have the ultimate right to decide on what substances can be legally consumed and which ones can’t, they ought to at least ask the experts for their input.

We not only have the experts, but also better facilities than any of our neighbours. Foreigners are currently pursuing doctoral degrees in GM in Kenya. We have a chance to become a regional leader in the field with all the jobs in academia and industry that would entail.

Is he right? Should Kenya lift the ban on GMOs? And are women inherently stronger than men? Send your feedback to [email protected]

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THE GOVERNMENT IS CONFUSED

If biotechnology is bad, why does the government employ biotechnology experts in its ranks? The Ministry of Health does not have witchdoctors (at least I hope it doesn’t) in its ranks.

Why do the ministries of Trade and Agriculture have biotechnologists? Why is the government funding training of GM scientists if it knows it is poison?

The government believes the World Health Organisation when it says that tetanus jabs are not harmful; why should they fail to believe them when they say that GM has no ill will?

Modified cotton at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute is 10 years old. It has been ready for commercialisation and it is just a matter of changing laws to make it usable.

We have a lot of arable land which can support GM cotton and we should immediately adopt it.

The ban inconveniences trade, manufacturing, agriculture, research and even distribution of relief food. It hinders the employment of several thousands of graduates at a time when every job that comes the government’s way should be welcome.

Why is the government spending billions researching a subject yet ensuring nothing materialises from that research?

Why is the government spending taxpayer money to subsidise education of biotechnologists?

When is the government going to compensate students for their years of study of biotechnology related courses?

Why doesn’t the Government issue travel advisories against countries like South Africa, Burkina Faso and China which have adopted GM crops? Does it want Kenyans travelling to these countries to be harmed?

Why is GM banned when the government has done just about everything it could to nurture the industry?

There is nothing wrong with GMOs and we are holding back the country by not adopting the technology.

We should also celebrate leaders like the Senator Kiraitu Murungi and the DP William Ruto, who are willing to come out and stand on the side of evidence.

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