Kenya’s decision to import GMOs sends region into panic

Sunday October 16 2011

A trial plantation of genetically modified cotton at the KARI centre in Kenya's Thika town. Photo/FILE

A trial plantation of genetically modified cotton at the KARI centre in Kenya's Thika town. Photo/FILE 

By KEN OPALA and TOM MOSOBA, Special Correspondents

Kenya’s decision to allow importation of GM foods has created a ripple across the East African region. According to sources, Tanzania and Uganda may be forced to fast-track their GM trials and bio-safety legislations in a bid to catch up with Kenya, which now seeks to allow in GM maize to deal with famine.

Kenya’s move, endorsed by the Cabinet in August with importation guidelines and regulations published a month later, could spell a cross-border flow of GMOs, due to poor administration of the region’s national boundaries.

“We will have the chance to review our neighbours (biosafety) framework,” says Dr Andrew Kiggundu, head of biotechnology at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Kampala. “I would like to see Uganda develop its own (mechanism) quicker than ever.”

Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture has already submitted a formal request to the government to revise the law to allow more research in the area of GMOs.

However, anti-GMO activists are worried. “It is very unfortunate Kenya has done this.

This is likely to energise those who advocate for GMOs in Tanzania,” said Loyce Lema, the executive director of envirocare. “We do not oppose biotechnology in its entirety as it is useful in other ways such as medical research.

However, we are strongly against GM seed which Africa and Tanzania in particular are likely to embrace.”

“Our biotechnology sector is not as vibrant as that of our neighbours. The number and impact of research institutes is minimal and the gap of knowledge on biotechnology is so huge in Tanzania,” said Alois Kullaya of the the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute. “Our ability to control GMO from entering the country is almost non-existent.”

Ugandan scientists and policymakers have applied pressure on the government to pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill which has stayed at drafting stage for the past eight years.

A lobby, Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, was formed last month to fast-track biotechnology in improving livelihoods. The absence of the law has hindered the adoption of GMOs, the lobby says.

Yet, despite the intransigence over GM technology, there is a general belief that the region has been consuming GMOs anyway.

“If we are importing maize from South Africa, a country 70 per cent of whose maize is GM, one cannot doubt the possibility bearing in mind that South African government has no policy of isolating GM maize from organic ones,” Dr Kullaya says.

Kenya has been consuming on GMOs, either directly as maize or through pharmaceutical products. In July 2008, authorities announced they were to import one million bags of maize from Zambia, a country that relies on food imports from South Africa. In June, about 270,000 tonnes of maize were imported from Comesa, largely from South Africa, according to the Johannesburg-based African Centre for Biosafety.

Kenya’s food imports bill from South Africa was Ksh5.5 billion ($55 million) in 2008, which went up four-fold, to Ksh23.6 billion($236 million) last year. South African maize imports are quite cheap despite the 50 per cent tariff in the region.

Some of the EAC’s pharmaceutical products are manufactured from GMOs, and are imports from countries that already grow GMOs on a commercial basis, among them South Africa, the US, and Brazil.

Insulin used to treat diabetes, for instance, is mostly manufactured from GMOs. Other products include additives, enzymes, flavours and vitamins.

“It is a reality. Not only the food we eat, even the clothes we wear are made out of GMOs,” said Jumanne Maghembe, Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives.