A Kenyan harvests maize. Representative photo. Photo: One Acre Fund/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0
- Kenya recently lifted a ban on the cultivation and import of genetically modified (GM) crops amid the worst drought in 40 years and rising food prices.
- Activists have protested the move, but the government says the move follows a report by a task force on GM foods that concluded there is adequate scientific regulation and a strong regulatory framework.
- There are three main concerns about GMOs: unintended harmful effects, food and environmental safety, and social attitudes, including the fear that GMOs are a case of “man playing God.”
Kenya recently lifted a ban on the cultivation and import of genetically modified (GM) crops amid the worst drought in 40 years and rising food prices. This includes the main crop of the country, white corn. The decision was welcomed by scientists who see GM crops as the answer to food safety. But a spirited lobby, concerned about the potential risks to health and the environment, opposes it. Benard Odhiambo Oloo, an expert on food safety and quality, reports on the debate.
What is GMO?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) refer to plants, microbes or animals whose genetic structure has been altered by the introduction of a gene selected from another unrelated species. For plants, this is usually aimed at imparting a desired trait such as increased yield, insect tolerance or drought resistance among others.
Genetic engineering refers to the field of science that deals with selecting the desired genes responsible for specific traits from one species and transferring them to the genes of another organism, thus changing the genetic makeup of the second species.
Humans have been improving the quality of domesticated products for thousands of years. But this has mainly been through traditional breeding, where important traits are encouraged, selected and passed on from one generation to the next.
Conventional breeding usually takes 10-15 years. The turnaround for genetic engineering is usually less than five years. However, due to strict commercialization regulations, most GM crops have been in the pipeline for decades, especially in Africa.
How widespread is their cultivation in Africa?
Approval and cultivation of GMOs in Africa is slow. Only a few countries have allowed their commercialization. South Africa is the leader in the adoption of GMO crops in Africa and has more than a decade of experience. The number of countries where GMO crops are grown in Africa has increased from three in 2016 to 10 by 2022. These 10 countries have commercialized different types of GMO crops.
Apart from South Africa, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana and Swatini have allowed the planting of GMO seeds. A number of other countries are at various stages of development and commercialization of a number of GMOs.
The leading GMO crops under consideration in various countries (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and others) are GM cotton (resistant to African bollworm), GM cassava (resistant to cassava brown streak disease) and GM maize (resistant to bollworm). ) among many others.
This year, Ghana approved the release of legume-resistant cowpea, joining a growing list of African countries to commercialize GM crops. It is the first genetically modified product approved in the country.
In December 2019, the Kenyan government gave the nod to the commercialization of GMO cotton. After more than two seasons of growing GM cotton, Kenyan farmers are happy to have good yields from Bt cotton despite drought conditions in the past few seasons.
Elsewhere in Africa, farmers have reported significant reductions in crop costs by reducing spraying to control insect pests and diseases. For example, control of the African bollworm has been costly and the pest has caused losses in cotton production.
This list is expected to continue to grow, despite long delays in the cultivation of GMOs in most African countries due to regulatory, political and social blockades.
Why did Kenya ban GMOs? What has changed?
Kenya banned GMO crops in 2012. The ministry’s statement on the ban was largely informed by a 2012 scientific report called the Séralini study, which linked GMOs to cancer in rats.
Anti-GMO activists have often cited this report and, in addition, cited the unknown impact of the changes as a key reason to push for bans. Other issues include fears about the impact of GMOs, mixed signals from the EU about the health and safety of GM foods, and the potential risk of GMOs to the environment and biodiversity.
Activists also fear the possible effects of GMOs on non-target organisms and the potential development of resistance to insect pests in GM crops. Finally, food safety fears of GMOs remain relevant in some parts of the continent.
The change of position of the Kenyan government was justified by a number of events. The first of these was the report of the Working Group on Genetically Modified Foods, which resulted in appropriate scientific regulation and a strong regulatory framework.
Another factor is the prolonged drought in which more than 4 million Kenyans are currently food insecure. Perhaps this has prompted the government to consider more radical solutions despite the opposition.
The government has decided to consider each application for the introduction of GMOs individually.
What could be wrong? And what mitigation plans are in place?
There are three main concerns about what can go wrong with GMOs. These are unintended harmful effects, food safety, environmental safety and social relations, including fears of GMOs being a case of “man playing God”.
There is also concern about the unintended harmful effects of GMOs on the environment. Anticipating these risks, scientists working in the field of GMOs have created a set of rules. The goal of these regulations is to assess whether GMOs are as safe for humans and the environment as their conventional counterparts before they are accepted for commercial use.
Food Safety: Food safety studies, including allergenicity tests (the ability of an antigen to cause an abnormal immune response), are a mandatory requirement for the commercialization of GMOs. Countries have also established biosafety authorities with the authority to regulate the development and commercialization of GMOs.
Environmental safety: The international agreement provides a framework for the processing, transport and use of GMOs. It provides a clear roadmap for assessing the environmental impact of GMOs. It has practiced post-release monitoring and evaluation for 10 years or more after the release of a GM product.
An example is the potential development of weeds that are resistant to one or more specific herbicides—superweeds. Herbicide tolerance has helped farmers to control weeds and significantly reduce the cost of GM crop production. This is because plants can be genetically modified to become resistant to common herbicides such as glyphosate. However, there is a chance that farmers may over-rely on this weed control technique to the detriment of weeds that have developed resistance.
The potential for such resistance should be closely monitored. In Kenya, it is the responsibility of county governments through extension officers to report any early cases and take action if there are signs of potential resistance. The goal should be to use multiple approaches to weed and pest control, also called integrated pest management systems.
Socio-cultural aspects: The government should make every effort to allay people’s concerns about GMOs. This includes pointing out that humans have been modifying the product for thousands of years. GM foods have been grown and consumed in various countries for more than 20 years. So far, there is no scientific evidence to support any of the fears. GM crops have been assessed as being as safe for human consumption and the environment as conventional crops.
Benard Odhiambo OlooLecturer, Department of Food Science and Technology, Dairy and Food Science and Technology, Egerton University.
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