Kenya is in the last stage of adopting genetically modified organisms if an application to secure a licence to supply cotton seeds is approved.
Monsanto Kenya Ltd — a subsidiary of Monsanto Company— is a publicly traded US multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation and submitted an application to release GM cotton seed.
The seed is known as MON 15985 or Bollgard II and has been genetically engineered to produce an insecticide from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, making it poisonous to butterflies and moths.
It is these two pests that are being targeted by the new technology.
They have been identified by scientists and researchers as hampering the production of cotton in Kenya.
They destroy the entire harvest if no pesticides are applied.
According Dr Charles Waturu, the principal investigator of the Bt cotton project, the Monsanto technology is the only solution to the ailing cotton sub-sector.
“The industry has been in a sorry state. In 1985, we used to produce 70,000 bales of cotton but in 2013 we could only produce 20,000. In the same year, Tanzania and Uganda produced 700,000 and 400,000 bales respectively,” Dr Waturu, who is also the director of Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Thika says in a paper titled Bt Cotton Research Progress.
He says most farmers have abandoned the crop, and attributes that to lack of uncertified seeds.
This has seen Kenya import cotton from Tanzania as the little that is grown cannot be used to develop the industry.
The National Biosafety Authority received the Monsanto Kenya Ltd application last October.
The authority, is a state corporation established in 2009 to provide supervision and monitoring of GM organisms research and commercialisation.
It reviewed the application and after confirming that it was precise, issued a public notice as the law stipulates to get comments from Kenyans.
If NBA approval is granted, Kenya would become the fourth African country to allow cultivation of GM crops after South Africa, Bukina Faso and Sudan.
The notice was issued through an advert in the national daily papers.
NBA organised a forum last month at the School of Monetary Studies, Nairobi where the public submitted views on the proposed Bt Cotton growing.
During the meeting, scientists from NBA showed the public how to participate in decision-making.
“After receiving the application, our work is to assess the product, which is what is supposed to happen to all GMOs and prove whether they are safe to the human health and the environment,” Prof Dorrington Ogoy, the authority’s director of technical services told the forum.
Kenyans had been given up to December 19 to submit comments — 30 days since the advert was published.
The public forum was told that NBA would make the final decision on the application, based on risk assessment, socio-economic considerations and comments received.
The authority expects to release the results by 2018.
Besides comments from the public, Mr Josephat Muchiri of NBA told the forum that the authority was consulting with other government agencies.
“We shall get independent opinions and recommendations from various experts,” Mr Muchiri told the forum.
One of the agencies is Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, which is conducting a performance trial of the seeds.
Others are Directorate of Veterinary Services, the Department of Public Health, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, National Environment Management Authority, Kenya Wildlife Services, Kenya Industrial Property Institute and the Pesticides Control Board.
In October Deputy President William Ruto said Kenya would lift the ban the cabinet imposed on the importation of GM foods by the end of that month.
The announcement was met with mixed reaction.
The government’s position appeared to be informed by a need to address perennial food shortages.
Before Mr Ruto made the announcement, scientists at Karlo had submitted to the NBA an application seeking to be allowed to release a GM-maize variety — or Bt-Maize — openly in the country.
The NBA sought views of Kenyans on the application. Some groups organised demonstrations to oppose the plan.
It is a pointer to the long-drawn controversy surrounding the introduction of GMOs in Kenya.
Proponents say genetic engineering of crops can reduce challenges facing farming and fight hunger.
The group is led by scientists and NGOs who say genetically engineered foods are as safe healthy.
The pro-GMO lobby has gone ahead to test varieties of GM-crops, including Bt-Maize at Karlo’s Kiboko Station and Bt-cotton in Mwea.
Done in confined field, the research is meant to evaluate the performance of GM-crops in drought conditions.
It is being conducted under different programmes, including Water Efficient Maize for Africa, which is a public/private partnership, and the United States Agency for International Development.
Another issue that causes discomfort among some Kenyans is the intellectual ownership by companies like Monsanto.
Kenya Small Scale Farmers Secretary-General Justus Lavi Mwololo asked during the NBA forum – what benefits would the country get if it adopted the technology?
“Our biggest fear about GMOs is the cost of seed. It is Monsanto which will decide the cost since it has the copyright,” Mr Mwololo said.
Responding to the question, Dr Waturu said despite having the patent, Monsanto would change the lives of cotton farmers.
“The main problem we have been having in the cotton industry is lack of certified seeds as farmers keep recycling them,” he said.
He cited India where Bt-cotton is grown.
“In India, Bt-cotton is increasing by a million hectares a year and I don’t understand why Kenya should not borrow the technology,” he said.
During the forum, concerns were also raised on whether NBA had reached out to all Kenyans, especially cotton farmers.
The authority pledged to use every forum at the grassroots level to deliver the message and ensure the participation of decision-making by as many people as possible.
In 2013, an attempt by Monsanto to introduce commercial Bt-cotton production in Malawi failed.
The company made an application in accordance with the law and a notice was placed in newspapers.
Unfortunately, the email address given in the advert, which people were to use to make written submissions, was wrong.
The public did not take part in decision-making and civil societies challenged the introduction of the seeds in the country.
The Malawi Government allowed an extension of time for submission of comments.
During this time the societies decided to study Monsanto’s application so as to take a position.
They objected to the approval of the application, saying it lacked cost-benefit analysis on the impact of growing of Bt-cotton on farmers.
They also said important elements like the potential development of secondary pests, examination of multiple exposure pathways and development of pest resistance were not dealt with substantially in the application.
The civil societies then called on the government to dismiss the application and suspend trials of Bt cotton.
This is how GMO-Free Malawi platform was established to resist the introduction of GM crops and foods.