KALAMBUKA: The Cabinet may have engineered a dilemma - Daily Nation

The Cabinet may have genetically engineered an agricultural dilemma

Sunday July 24 2011


By now, Kenyans must have drawn useful lessons from the Cabinet’s decision to allow the importation of genetically modified maize (read crops).

In attacking science and smallholder agriculture, for that is what the decision does, the Cabinet is not just biting the hand that feeds them, but also, that which tries to feed those most in need.

This is either a case of wobbling scientific illiteracy in government or of covert State dysfunction. What, in the first place, is the cause of our perennial food shortages?

There are serious issues regarding the technical performance of genetically modified crops (GMCs) under African conditions, which indicate their benefits for Kenya’s poor farmers are doubtful.

Genetic transformation is just one wrench in the biotechnology toolbox. There are many others which offer an opportunity to research and put development to good use in our troubled agriculture.

However, the research should not begin with the introduction of GMCs. GMCs are the product of recombinant DNA technology – the technique of isolating a gene from one organism and inserting it into the DNA of another organism to impart novel characteristics.

Its power, however, lies in the ability to transfer genetic information from unprecedented sources such as algae, bacteria and viruses to plants, or to move genes between sexually incompatible species.

For example, a crop can be engineered to produce its own pesticides, to have drought tolerance, to have elevated nutritional quality, or even to produce vaccines (‘pharming’).

Proponents of GMCs argue, quite understandably, that this technology has a potential to increase food production, reduce the use of synthetic pesticides, and actually make foods safer and healthier.

Indeed, there are a number of constraints in our agricultural productivity imposed by biotic stress from plant diseases, insects and weeds.

Transgenic herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant crops are specifically designed to target these constraints.

The proponents point to the adoption of transgenic insect-resistant maize and herbicide-resistant soybean by South African farmers as proof of their relevance in at least one African country. But do these proponents reflect on the needs and aspirations of the majority farmers in Africa?

Most of the research on GMCs is conducted by commercial enterprises that hold intellectual property rights on their inventions. How will poor farmers afford GM seeds?

GMCs will benefit only a few rich farmers. Even more worrisome is the fact that the market for GM seeds will be dominated by a small clique of powerful private companies.

It is important that we do not just become recipients of finished products, but full participants in the generation and application of carefully tailored agricultural technologies.

Technologies policed to us on ‘‘take it’’ or ‘‘leave it’’ basis should be rejected. Market-driven genetic engineering research is unlikely to address the really urgent needs of ‘‘orphan’’ crops such as cassava, plantain, yam, sweet potato, sorghum and millet, on which a very significant proportion of our people depend for food.

Introducing GMCs will definitely steer farmers away from crop diversification and help to maintain a system dominated by monocultures. We have traditionally relied on crop diversity for pest, disease control and soil management.

Central to the debate on GMCs, however, should be our readiness to deal with the many complex ecological, agronomic and economic implications of this technology on our agriculture.

Though the risks are event- and context-specific (for example, ecological risks identified in Canada may not be relevant to risks in Kenya due to gene flow issues), deployment of GMCs in large monocultures poses a number of ecological risks.

These include the spread of transgenes to related weeds or conspecifics through crop-weed hybridisation; the rapid evolution of resistance of pests; and the risk of creating new harmful plant viruses through wild viruses hijacking genes from engineered crops.

Since hardly any research has been conducted on the ecological impact of GMCs on small-holder farming systems in Kenya, it is everyone’s guess what the damage would be on the complex environments in which Kenyan farmers grow a multitude of crops.

It should be remembered that, unlike chemical contamination, genetic contamination cannot be recalled.

Dr Kalambuka teaches Physics at the University of Nairobi ([email protected]).