As Kenya prepares to commercialize GM crops, there is resistance from some farmers and campaign groups, who question their safety.
“You make what we eat worse than it is,” accuses farmer Eva Wanjiru.
He is worried that many Kenyan farmers will start using genetically modified (GM) maize seeds early next year after the government recently reversed a 10-year ban on the crops.
The seeds will be planted on half a million hectares and will be drought-resistant, the country’s agricultural authority says, helping to limit shortages caused by a lack of rain.
However, there is nothing to fear when it comes to consuming genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the human body, says Richard Oduor, professor of biotechnology at Kenyatta University.
“There is no scientific evidence linking biotech to cancer. I think it’s a convenient debate why are we comfortable taking genetically modified insulin but can’t take genetically modified foods because of fanciful effects? The claims are baseless,” he said. the BBC.
In any case, he says, GMOs are closely monitored after they are released.
Kenya is currently facing severe water shortages caused by four failed consecutive rainy seasons amid one of the worst droughts the East African region has seen in four decades. This means crops cannot grow, prompting warnings of possible famine.
GM seeds are those that have been genetically modified to produce desirable traits such as drought and pest resistance – and it is because of this resistance that some have a more positive view than Ms Wanjiru.
They say lifting the ban on GMOs was prompted by the real need to ensure food security and protect the environment.
“Climate change, the severity of drought and the emergence of new pests such as fall armyworms and diseases such as deadly maize wilt pose a real threat to food. [cattle] feed and nutritional security,” said Dr Eliud Kireger, director-general of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation.
These diseases and pests destroy the corn crop. For example, fall worms eat most of the vegetation as they move through crops.
Food scientists also say the technology will reduce the continent’s dependence on food imports because it will boost production.
“We should embrace technology and see it as a partial solution to the challenges we face more than concerns,” said Dr Murenga Mwimali, from the Alliance for Science at Cornell University in the US.
Targeting the Kenyan staple
A 2018 review of GMO studies found that over the past 20 years the yield from GMO corn has improved.
Kenya’s biotech regulator says there are signs costs are coming down due to improved weed control, less pesticide use and reduced labour.
The lifting of the ban means Kenyan farmers can now openly grow GM crops, as well as import food and feed produced through genetic modification, such as white GMO maize.
Maize is Kenya’s staple food and is grown on 90% of all Kenyan farms. It is used to make ugali, or corn meal, which is the country’s most common dish.
Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy, employing 80% of the rural population. Kenyan farmers rely on their crops not only for income but as a source of food for their families.
Ms Wanjiru has been farming organically for years at Kiangwaci in Sagana, 110 kilometers (70 miles) north-east of the capital, Nairobi. She uses no pesticides or hybrid seeds on her one-acre farm.
He believes there is insufficient evidence to prove that crops produced through biotechnology will help the country fight food insecurity.
“Most farmers who plant these GMOs complain about pests and diseases. If it doesn’t rain, they still complain about [how] the crop comes out in the farm. I don’t think it’s a solution.”
There are also fears that farmers who start using GMOs will become dependent on the companies that sell the genetically modified seeds and begin to dominate the market at the expense of ordinary Kenyan farmers.
“Allowing these companies to dominate the market for the production and import of staple crops such as maize is likely to affect the livelihoods of farmers who, in Kenya, produce about 40-45 million bags of maize each year,” said Claire Nasike, Environmentalist. at Greenpeace Africa.
“Lifting the ban on GMOs would also expose farmers to draconian intellectual property laws related to patents held by multinational GMOs. Genetically modified seeds are patented and this could lead to farmers on their farm whose genetically modified crops have been unknowingly developed in intellectual property disputes,” Ms Nasike continues.
But Dr Stephen Mugo, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture for Africa, argues that Kenya will not be at the mercy of multinationals.
“It is a far-fetched thought because Kenya has the capacity to develop genetically modified crops. Most companies lease the technology they use to create new genes,” he said.
A survey conducted by a non-governmental organization, the Route to Food Initiative, last year showed that 57% of Kenyans do not welcome GMOs, who will now have to be convinced.
A government agency tasked with general oversight and control of GMO transport, handling and use says the maize varieties have undergone clinical trials and passed safety assessments.
Officials say they will not pose a risk to human health.
“We have tested all safety parameters within international standards and the experience of the last 26 years shows that there has been no reliable report on the effects on human health, animal health and the environment,” said Dr Roy Muriiga, head of the National . Biosafety Authority.
Kenya is the eighth country on the continent to approve the use of GMOs. They are currently approved for cultivation in 70 countries around the world.
However, such assurances will not be enough to convince a skeptical public like Ms Wanjiru to plant or eat GMO crops due to their safety concerns and doubts about the projected economic benefits.