Have we just abandoned our bio-safety?
Oversight is a muscle that requires intensive and regular exercising. Prolonged preoccupation with the Presidential elections may have distracted the Cabinet from a matter of national interest. While they have been away campaigning, the cats may have given the mice a playing ground.
This week, National Bio-safety Authority Chief Executive William Tonui unilaterally approved the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation to start national performance trials of genetically modified MON810 maize across the entire country. The September 8 approval is significant in two respects.
Allow me to get little distracted before I discuss this significance. Our bodies and all the plants and animals around us are made up of billions of individual cells or genes. Each of these genes carry instructions that determine the color of our eyes, texture of our hair and
our resilience to disease and aging.
Knowing this, humanity has been selective breeding to get the best genes from the very beginning of time. When they were dating, our parents were doing it. All successful farmers have their prize bulls and cows. Those of you who are single and seeking to mingle, you do it every time you look a potential significant friend in the eyes. Selective breeding is not where the controversy lies.
The real controversy lies in the science of modifying plant organisms for agricultural production and consumption. In signing the approval, Tonui has inched open the door wider on one of greatest controversies of our time, bio-technology and the genetic modification of living organisms (GMOs).
Since the 1980s, scientists, politicians and a US$40 billion global industry have argued that rapid biotechnology is the only way Africa will feed itself through drought, pests and a hungry population. Most African Governments have tended to disagree. Only a handful of countries including Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa have approved the production, consumption and sale of genetically modified crops.
Burkina Faso recently abandoned this small group of countries after genetically modified BT cotton proved to be of low quality fiber. Rejected by national and international markets, it has been a costly policy and economic misadventure. Evidence for more caution is also drawn from the experience of North America, one of the early adopters in the 1990s. Failure to stop crop cross-pollination, bio-diversity loss and the rise of chronic illnesses such as cancer, food allergies and reproductive health challenges have raised widespread public concerns.
This weeks’ notice of approval is significant in another respect. To date, Kenya has insisted on rigorous testing to ensure GM technology does not harm either citizens, animals, plants or the environment. Kenya currently has a cabinet ban on GM seed importation. A national taskforce put in place to generate bio-safety guidelines has not submitted its work to the Cabinet.
Both Health and Agriculture Cabinet Secretaries Bett and Maillu are emphatic that there are real dangers that come with uncontrolled cross-pollination. They have maintained that no national performance trials will be conducted without appropriate environmental impact and risk assessments. This has not been done prior to CEO’s approval. In addition, importing GM maize seeds without a reversal on the Cabinet GM seed ban would also be irregular and illegal.
Without completing the environmental impact assessments, there is no way of knowing whether the distance between GMO trial sites and the neighboring farms is sufficient to avoid cross-pollination. This potential lack of isolation renders the exercise irrelevant. The Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation will have just contaminated maize farms in places like Kitale, the breadbasket of our country, without knowing what is going to happen next.
Within this context, it is unclear why the National Biosafety Authority Chief Executive with one month left on his contract is throwing caution to the wind and reversing a ten-year national policy at this point. With two applications before the NBA for MON18 maize and BT cotton (the same variety now abandoned by the Burkinabe), is it only a matter of time before the NBA gives license to BT cotton trials in the Western counties as well?
More importantly, it is not clear whether the NBA position is supported by our National Cabinet, the National Taskforce or the Council of Governors. These bodies and the public regulator The National Environmental Management Agency needs to urgently review this development. It flagrantly contradicts national policy. It also, endangers the public interest.
First published Sunday Standard, September 17, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group