GMOs: Kenya puts the cart before the horse
By Gatonye Gathura
Horizon Magazine / Daily Nation newspaper (Kenya)
The utilization of genetically modified organisms and their research in Kenya is very far ahead of the country's regulatory framework - a case of putting the cart before the horse.
Although a draft Biosafety Bill has been ready for presentation to the country's parliament for some time now, it is still doubtful this will be made into Law any time soon.
Two things seemingly unrelated took place in March 2005, one in Nairobi and the other globally: the 9th Parliament of Kenya opened for its fourth session on Wednesday 14 March 2005 and, a day after, the international community observed the World Consumer Rights Day. This year's theme - Consumers say NO to GMOs - observed under the banner of Consumers International, highlights the threats posed by genetically modified organisms
"It is important for our legislators to remember they are still sitting on the belated Biosafety Bill which is supposed to put in place a regulatory mechanism on the importation, research and use of GMOs. We are asking them to debate this Bill now as a matter of priority," says Mr. Samuel Ochieng, CEO Consumer Information Network the local member of Consumers International.
Kenya is now ranked third in genetic engineering research in Africa, behind South Africa and Egypt. According to a recent study by a local researcher, Ms Lucy Mathenge, Kenya is advanced in biotechnologies used to develop hybrid plants not to mention imported products.
But Ms Mathenge puts a rider: Kenya cannot handle GMOs. "It is currently hard to deal with GMOs because laws that regulate the organisms are still being formulated and have not been put in place," the researcher said at a recent meeting in Nairobi.
Despite the absence of a regulatory mechanism, Kenya with the help of American multinationals promoting the use of GMOs has gone ahead to put up infrastructure to develop and test GMOs. Last June, Kenya's President, Mwai Kibaki officially opened an ultra modern greenhouse facility, which is being used in the research of genetically modified maize and cotton at the outskirts of Nairobi.
The president's action could be interpreted as an official government endorsement of genetically modified foods in the country. During the same function, the President acknowledged that the country was in the process of enacting a policy for biotechnology research and product utilisation but this seemed to suggest that the greenhouse he was opening and the research going on in the country is illegal because it is not supported by any legal policy or regimen.
The most visible aspects of biotechnology in Kenya have been the development of bt maize, cotton and sweet potato, with the latter failing to show any significant usefulness.
"But why are this projects allowed to go on without a legal framework?" asks Mr David Kerich a large-scale maize farmer in Kenya.
Unknowingly, Kenyans like most of the poor countries are consuming genetically modified organisms not only in the form of food aid but mostly pharmaceutical drugs. Most vaccines, and specifically for hepatitis B, are mainly developed through genetic engineering and are in widespread use in Nairobi.
"We receive so much food aid and medicines from Europe and America and we might just be consuming modified products without our knowledge because they are not labelled," says Ms Mathenge.
A clear case in point is where Kenyan farmers for the last four years have been getting clonal eucalyptus through a biotechnology transfer project between the government and Mondi Forests, which is a division of Mondi Ltd., South Africa. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation of United Kingdom funds this project, while the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA AfriCenter) facilitates the undertaking.
The farmers, the general agricultural communities and Kenyans in general, are not aware to what extent this eucalyptus tree has been genetically altered because this information is not being provided, even those pushing the project on the ground do not know.
The tree now very popular in Kenya is being promoted as - the fastest moneymaker on the farm. Kenya's Nobel Prize winner Prof. Wangari Maathai says eucalyptus, whether genetically engineered or conventional, is a "selfish tree." Its plantations remove nutrients from the soil and consume so much water that farmers cannot grow anything else in neighbouring fields.
GM forest trees do not attract the same immediate health concerns as GM food crops. But in reality, they pose an even greater threat than GM crops because they impact directly on natural forests that are essential for the survival of the planet.
One participant of the project, David Muraya, a farmer whose land is located in a semi-arid zone says, "These trees really grow fast unlike the conventional material...this plantation is my investment f or the future.... it is like a form of my pension... it is also an excellent way of making use of my otherwise semi-arid piece of land."
But the country's small-scale farmers who constitute 80 per cent of all farmers in the country have sent a strong message to the government and the international community on their stand in the GMOs debate.
In August, the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum - representing crop farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk - declared that because of the inherent unknowns posed by these new technologies, they are totally opposed to the introduction of genetically modified organisms in the local agricultural system.
The group, which is so far the largest organised single lobby entity which is directly involved in farming, opposes GMOs because: "They are a danger to food security, our indigenous gene pool and the environment. " the farmers also introduce an interesting angle - the technologies will be expensive for the majority of its members while they argue that even existing and much tested technologies are still underutilised.
"Low productivity in our farms is not for lack of technologies but a combination of factors mainly boiling down to poverty," says the group's chairman Mr. Zachary Makanya.
But even some local politicians hold strong views over GMOs. Last December, a legislator from the country foremost maize growing area, Kitale District, tabled a motion in Parliament asking the house to ban all GM products from Kenya. He received strong support from a number of high-profile MPs in the House an indication that when the bill comes in for debate both sides of the divide can expect serious representation.
Another legislator talking at a workshop organized by a pro-GMO group saw this as a very noble idea of eradicating poverty, "but unfortunately the public and the legislators do not understand the protocols and conventions guiding it," MP, Mwancha Okioma said.
But even before the Bill is introduced to Parliament it has already been faulted. Mr Eric Kisiangani of Intermediate Technology Development Group - East Africa says, "Kenya's Biosafety Bill needs to be rigorous and should have strong safety standards to regulate any import, growth and use of GMOs. However this draft Bill seems to be more of a mechanism to facilitate and approve GMOs, rather than to regulate them."
"Neither the Kenyan people nor civil society or environmental groups have been consulted in the drafting of the Biosafety Bill," said Oduor Ong'wen of Southern and East Africa Trade Information Network Initiative. "Perhaps that is why the Kenyan draft Bill does not even conform to the minimum standards recommended under the international UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, as shown by legal experts affiliated to the African Union."
"There are better and cheaper options than GMOs for tackling the problems faced by Kenyan farmers, which do not jeopardize Kenyan interests or endanger our people and nature," pointed out Thari Kulissa of ECOTERRA Intl. "For example, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), has shown how intercropping with napier grass and desmodium can protect against stem borers and weeds, increase soil fertility and provide fodder for cattle. Why do we need expensive and risky GMOs when we already have the answers?"
This is echoed by Amadou Kanouté, Regional Director for Consumers International Africa Office: "There are simple and adequate technologies developed by African researchers and farmers, which are gaining ground. Unfortunately, these technologies do not enjoy as much promotion and support as their GMO challengers. Lets emphasise on these available alternatives lest we overestimate the ability of science to master the unknown."