Kenya: Is Ruto’s GMO embrace a political or practical solution to food insecurity?

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Wednesday, 12 October 2022 09:56

Monsanto crew members count corn sprouts in a field of test hybrids in a breeding nursery near Kihei, Hawaii. (The Maui News, Matthew Thayer via AP, File)

Kenya’s President William Ruto has overturned a 10-year ban on importation or cultivation of genetically modified crops (GMO) in the East African country, heralding a new dawn in the country’s shaky agricultural sector. During his third week in office, Ruto used his predecessor’s outgoing cabinet to overturn a decision that had been resisted for a decade, but will this be the magic bullet to resolving the perennial food insecurity?

On 3 October, Ruto chaired his second cabinet meeting since ascending to the presidency in what has become significant policy pronouncements in his nascent reign.

  “[The] cabinet vacated its earlier decision of 8 November 2012 prohibiting the open cultivation of genetically modified crops and the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations,” said a cabinet dispatch. “By dint of the executive action open cultivation and importation of white (GMO) maize is now authorised.”

In 2012, then President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet banned the cultivation and importation of GMO crops or products on the basis of a “publication by a team of scientists in France, claiming that rats developed tumours when fed on either Roundup-ready or Roundup-tolerant genetically modified [GM] maize”, says a 2018 report by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

Kibaki left office in April 2013, handing over the presidency to Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy Ruto. A highly placed source in the administration says Kenyatta’s cabinet faced immense pressure in its early months, especially from American organisations, which were keen to spread their GMO wings to East Africa.

Later that year, then minister of health James Macharia constituted a team of 12 experts led by a top scientist Kihumbu Thairu to, among other things, advise the government “on whether to maintain or lift the existing ban on genetically modified foods […]”.

Reports indicate that the Thairu team gave a clean bill of health for the adoption of GMO crops, advice that was never taken.

Cabinet expeditions

The highly placed source says despite the tick of approval from the Thairu team “there was no consensus in government” on lifting the ban. It is notable that the 3 October 2022 cabinet meeting had the same team that President Kenyatta had led, only this time, it was Ruto at the helm. Ruto’s cabinet nominees are yet to be vetted by parliament thus cannot legally transact any state business.

“I don’t know whether in the less than three weeks that [Ruto has] been in government we have [tasked] someone to look into details of where we are going,” says James Nyikal, a medical doctor and MP from Kisumu County. “10 years on there may be new information. I would be more cautious and look into other causes of food deficiency and address them first.”

GMO regulation

For more than 13 years, Kenya has maintained a law that regulates the handling of genetically modified organisms. This is steered by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) that was established in 2010.

Richard Oduor, a director of research at Kenyatta University, says there have been dedicated efforts into the study of GMOs and that there is no serious danger posed by their adoption. “Once [genetically modified organisms are] released out there, there is post-release monitoring just like [it] happens in pharmaceutical world.”

We need prospective studies and those studies should be [undertaken] throughout the world, not just in Kenya

“When we roll out the release of GM maize, we will follow it up with monitoring and technology stewardship to ensure that the two [existing non-GM crops and the GM crops] are able to coexist in the cropping system,” says Roy Mugiira, the NBA chief executive officer.

Kipruto Kirwa, a former minister of agriculture during Kibaki’s first term as president (2003-2007), is not comfortable with the safety assurances. “Which clinical trials have we done for purposes of obviating any issue of harm to human nature?” he says.

Bernard Kilonzo, a medical doctor, agrees with Kirwa. “We need prospective studies and those studies should be [undertaken] throughout the world not just in Kenya.”

Climatic pitfalls

Kirwa cautions that, “[Kenya] will face the same challenges with GMO crops as we face with normal crops. They are not going to plant [them] in Garissa just because there is not enough water,” he says.

Garissa is one of 23 Kenyan counties currently experiencing severe drought and famine. The arid and semi arid lands barely grow any reasonable amounts of food, yet they are net importers of food commodities from better-endowed counties.

However, the cabinet endorsed GM technology “as part of the medium to long term responses to the ongoing drought, and as a progressive step towards significantly redefining agriculture in Kenya by adopting crops that are resistant to pests and disease”.

Policy vs practice

Ruto’s move would appear to be in line with his stance to undo many Kenyatta policies that he didn’t approve of while he served as Kenyatta’s deputy, but the debate has grown bigger in both social and scientific circles.

Oduor observes that the criticism of the cabinet decision has been occasioned by lack of information and unfounded suspicion that GM crops are foreign materials.

We have a problem as Africans: [We] over-debate technologies. […] The technology has [changed] and we are not benefitting yet

“Scientists don’t come up with DNA that doesn’t exist. We pick from what exists. If for example our problem is drought in North Eastern [Kenya] and we want to grow animal feed, we check what is the crop that is tolerant there [and work with it],” says Oduor.

He observes that the criticism is just an extension of endless debate over technology. “We have a problem as Africans, [We] over-debate technologies. […] The technology has [changed] and we are not benefitting yet,” he says. “Probably it’s a trick that we keep debating as they [global north] generate and develop and that we keep enjoying as a market destination.”

More questions than answers

For now farmers have more questions than answers, including where to source the seeds.

“Who is going to sell these seeds, who is patenting the seeds […]?” says Anne Maina, a coordinator with Biodiversity and Biosafety Association Kenya, a pro-organic farming NGO.

Kirwa, the former minister, is weary that the new policy direction could herald a playfield for wealthy multinationals to flood the Kenyan market with seeds to the disadvantage of Kenyan innovations.

“Can we build requisite capacity as Kenya so that if we are producing GMO seeds and GM control measures like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, that we will say we are in charge of our own destiny, because food security is sovereignty of a nation,” Kirwa says.

Ruto’s campaign pitch was heavy on improving food security. On his first week in office, Ruto’s administration released subsidised fertiliser to thousands of farmers ahead of the planting season. With GMO farming just about to become a reality, the new administration must venture more into farmer education or risk kicking the can that is food security down the road.

“GMO is not the solution to the food crisis… I don’t think we have food shortage due to the seeds we have, but the agriculture we practice,” Nyikal says.

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