Kenya will soon start cultivation of genetically modified cotton and maize, making it the first East African country and fourth in Africa after South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan to grow GM crops in open fields.
The Cabinet is expected to lift a ban the government imposed on importation of GM food in 2012. This comes after announcement that the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) is in the final stages of approving the environmental release of two GM crops — BT cotton and BT maize — for commercial cultivation.
The two crops are among the six that have been under confined field trials at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).
The other crops under confined field trials are, drought-tolerant maize, biofortified sorghum, viral resistant cassava and gypsophila paniculata cut flowers.
Before the approval, the NBA is conducting a risk assessment on the products, that involves placement of a gazette notice for a month and holding a public forum before the approval.
“All this has to be considered before approval under the NBA Act of GMO environmental release,” said Willy Tonui, NBA chief executive.
The approval process for environmental release takes 150 days from the date of the application and costs $8,500.
The first approval is expected in October for national performance trials by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) for two seasons — to last between two to three years — on their use and stability.
“If they meet the required standards, the company/organisation in charge of the crop will also seek approval from NBA before the seed varieties or food are licensed for local consumption,” said Dr Tonui.
“The licence lasts for only 10 years after which it is renewed for another 10 years. This gives the NBA the mandate to monitor the crop or food to confirm if there are any risks or whether it is fully fit for consumption.”
He said that GMOs in the country will be monitored from development to consumption, in all key areas such as ports of entry, field trials, and along product value chains to ensure compliance, a mandate given to the NBA.
In East Africa, only Uganda, Kenya, are carrying out confined field trials on BT cotton, maize and cassava. Tanzania recently reviewed its law on genetically modified organisms, paving the way for scientists in the country to start carrying out confined trials on crops such as maize and cassava.
The strict liability clause in the Environment Management Biosafety Regulations has now been replaced with the fault-based liability, meaning that anyone claiming compensation for damage will have to prove that whoever introduced the GMOs was at fault.
The strict liability clause meant that scientists, donors or partners funding the research were to be held accountable in the event of any damage occurring during or after research on GMO crops, a scenario that saw scientists restrict themselves to contained trials.
According to Charles Waturu, Kenya’s principal investigator for BT cotton and a director for the Horticulture Institute, the BT cotton, like any other of the crops to be approved for environmental release, will be grown where cotton is traditionally cultivated, like Kitui, Meru and at the Coast.
“GM is not any bad for human health so far up to 200 million hectares of land globally in under GM crops,” said Dr Waturu.
“The essence of GM products is to give one a variety to choose from, just like the hybrid seeds that were introduced years ago.”
He said that with BT cotton farmers are expected to save $700 per hectare as it will reduce the amount of money used in buying pesticides to control pests.
“Just as mobile technology has revitalised the communication industry in the country, biotechnology carries with it immense potential to advance the agriculture sector,” said Dr Waturu.
Kenya in 2010 produced about 21,000 bales of cotton. One bale is equal to 170 kilogrammes. Commercial production of transgenic cotton was introduced in 1996 and it is grown in different regions of the world. In Africa, the cotton is commercially grown in South Africa and Burkina Faso.
Once the GM variety is commercialised, the battle against the stem borer will be brought to a halt as this maize is resistant to attacks.