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blog post: Prof. Kameri-Mbote frames a legal dialogue on food security and sovereignty arguing that it is time kenya decides for or against GMO use in agriculture

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Blog Post by Prof. Patricia Kameri-Mbote | Professor of Law

 

Food Security & Sovereignty: Time to Decide For or Against GMO Use in
Agriculture

Drought is an Expected Phenomenon

Watching the reactions to the current drought is like watching a script that one has watched over and over again. It is like we never learn. Each drought catches us unawares. What use is information from the Meteorological department that there will be no rains four weeks after the expected onset of the rainy season? Farmers interpreted any drizzle in the month of March as the beginning of the rains and since they had been preparing their farms, started planting. Any seeds that germinated have now wilted but the bulk did not germinate. Preparation of farms and procurement of inputs for a new season including purchase of seeds is costly. This has to be seen within the context of a stagnant economy, massive looting of public resources by those tasked to be stewards, high inflation and high cost of foodstuff.

Below, a sample of recent news headlines announcing the current drought and its serious impacts. 

Kenya is in a region where cyclical drought is expected. We are among a handful of countries that have a climate change law and very advanced policies and strategies to deal with climate change. Our Constitution places a premium on environmental protection informed by awareness of the country’s vulnerability to the vagaries of drought. Kenya is among members of the global community implementing the Sustainable Development Goals aimed at slaying the dragons of poverty, hunger, resource depletion and inequality to name a few. My question is: what is the import of all these laws and policies to a starving nation?

Achieving Food Security and Sovereignty by Leveraging Kenya’s Position as a Technology Hub

Kenya has been dubbed as a Silicon Savannah in the African continent. This title is drawn from the Silicon Valley in the state of California in the United States, which boasts of many top technological innovations and companies and was earned by virtue of the many technological applications developed for diverse uses in various spheres and sectors of the economy. Kenya’s technology development is not only in the information and communications technology sector. The colonial settlement in Kenya had agriculture as a core focus. Facilitative laws and policies supported this. Indeed Kenya had a Seeds and Plant Varieties Act as early as 1942 and the Agriculture Act, Cap 318 that was repealed after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution was a far sighted Act that addressed all aspects of agricultural land use including sustainable land husbandry. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (renamed the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization) has had a long history of research into new plant varieties and has a long list of developed seed varieties as evidence of this research. Why has this research not translated into solutions for the twin problems of drought and hunger that are Kenya’s Achilles heel?

A stated objective of the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act Regulations passed in the mid 2000s was to promote the development of new varieties for food security. Almost twenty years have passed and food security remains a mirage. A country that depends on food imports to feed its population and on donors to fund its national budget cannot exercise its sovereignty fully. To ensure food security and food sovereignty must be every government’s top priority. This calls for marshaling all resources at the disposal of the government. Human resources, science and technology are some of these resources.

Should Kenya Adopt GMOs to Enhance Agricultural Productivity?

Kenya’s scientists have been working with agriculture technologies for a long time and have availed products of their research including tissue culture bananas to farmers.

Sample of opinion arguing in favour of GMO approval

From the 1990s, Kenyan scientists have also dallied with genetic engineering for sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava among others. Integral to this work and occurring alongside it is the discourse on biotechnology and biosafety, which has been ongoing since the 1990s when Kenya began work on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Kenya was the first country to sign the Biosafety Protocol in 2000. 

Its Biotechnology Policy and Biosafety Act were passed in 2006 and 2009 respectively. The aim was to provide a structured plan for engaging in biotechnology and to regulate GMO research activities throughresponsible research into, and minimization of the attendant risks. The Act is particularly concerned with ensuring adequate protection in the safe transfer, handling and use of GMOs that may have an adverse effect on human health and the environment..

Kenya’s work on GMOs has been caught in the crosshairs of two opposing camps globally and nationally - the proponents and the opponents of GMOs.

In the early 2000s at a meeting of stakeholders discussing whether Kenya should invest in GMOs for agriculture, a farmer quipped that he and his colleagues were like a patient on an operation table listening to doctors discussing possible treatment options and not agreeing. He was impatient that the doctors should agree and proceed to deal with his malady. To date there is no agreement. Kenya’s policy stance on GMOs can at best be characterized as ambivalent.

Below, a sample of newspaper headlines on attitudes towards GMOs.

                                  Business Daily, 18 September 2015                    The Star, 20 August 2015                    Daily Nation, 28 May 2018

While the National Biosafety Authority is in place, fully operational and has granted approvals for GMO experiments in laboratories and on farm, there is a moratorium on the importation of GMO products. This was effected in 2012 on the strength of a study that linked cancer in rats to the consumption of GM foods. The Report of a Committee appointed after the ban to study the issue and report to the government is yet to be made public. Consequently, the farmer’s concerns raised above remain in unresolved.

A Decision Must be Made One Way or Another 

GMO or any other technology is not a panacea to all food security problems. Faced with the dire situation where people are dying of hunger, it would be unconscionable to ignore technologies that could be of assistance. If there are technologies to deliver early maturing and drought resistant varieties, we should explore ways of applying them guided by biosafety measures for a number of reasons.  One, a blanket moratorium on GMO imports while work on GMOs is ongoing in the country is confusing. Why invest in institutions, laws and policies to guide the development of technology we do not trust?  

Below, samples of Kenya Gazette Notices by the National Biosafety Authority approving GMO field trials: 

Two, the ban should be clarified – does it require zero GM in food imports or is adventitious presence of trace amounts that remain despite the greatest care taken to eliminate GM elements allowed? Three, the certification and policing of imports at the source and points of entry may be negatively affected by corruption. The presence of products containing GMOs on shelves of local supermarkets points to a broken enforcement chain.  Finally, we have to determine how to deal with food donations. Our appeals for food aid may be hearkened by countries that allow GMO and whose citizenry routinely consume GMO foods. Should we preface our appeals for food donations with a requirement that such food only comes in a particular form to protect the environment? Even then how do we protect Kenyans’ health as required by the ban? Should we go out with an appeal specifying that no GM food is welcome?

We are dealing with a matter of life and death. People could die of hunger and according to the reasons for the ban; diseases brought on by the technology could kill.

Standard, 16 August 2015

We should not have to take a vote or a position on which of the two is the more acceptable death. Public resources have been used to set up an elaborate biosafety system. We need to use that system to ensure that drought resistant and early maturing varieties are available to farmers without adverse environmental and health effects. If we do not trust our biosafety system to deliver that, let us scrap it and use the resources to find other solutions to our problems.

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