A recent report in the Saturday Nation said that despite consent from the National Biosafety Authority, the Kenya Plant Heath Inspectorate Service (Kephis) had declined a request from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) to conduct national trials on genetically modified maize.
Kephis said it has to be approved by the National environment Management Authority (Nema).
Ironically, on the same page was a picture of a farmer in Kisii amongst her maize crop decimated by the fall armyworm (FAW), which GM technology could prevent.
It is right and proper to safeguard the people’s health and the environment.
However, we should look at the pros and cons of the GM debate critically or we are in danger of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” (to borrow the politicians’ cliché).
Genetic modification is an umbrella term for a multitude of methods aimed at achieving a variety of objectives.
In the early days, crude techniques using radiation or chemicals to induce mutations were used.
Mutants of all kinds were created, the vast majority of which had no benefit and were discarded.
Even though some did prove useful, it was a “blunderbuss” approach with no finesse and sometimes even the scientists could not explain why the “good” ones had beneficial properties.
That was then. Thanks to modern genome sequencing technology, we now understand better the genetic make-up of crops and the pests and diseases that attack them.
Using modern cheap, precise gene splicing technology known as CRISPR-Cas 9, scientists can make precise changes to target the non-beneficial organisms while creation of non-useful mutants is minimised.
Let us use FAW as an example. Last year, 28 African countries were confirmed affected as nine awaited confirmation.
It is estimated that FAW in Africa might eliminate 21-52 per cent of production over three years, costing $2.5-$6.1 million (Sh250-620 million) or more.
The easiest option for farmers is to spray expensive noxious insecticides.
But it is legal in Kenya to spray a concoction of either the spores or the toxin of the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) onto crops in the hope that growing larvae of the FAW will ingest the natural pathogen.
But as with chemical insecticides, it is costly and tedious.
There are varieties of maize that have the Bt gene spliced into the genome that have been tested in the US, where the FAW originates.
The Bt toxin is neatly packaged within the maize crop, so no need to spray many times.
That doesn’t affect the maize in any major way while extensive trials have shown no effect on people or animals that consume Bt maize.
The blanket 2012 GM ban is not supported by science and is both out of date and out of step with our needs.
At the very least, we should demand a proper, reasoned scientific explanation from Kephis and Nema as to why they consider GM technology to be harmful.