Kenya's Cabinet has unlocked billions for firms involved in the genetically modified organisms (GMO) industry after it approved the farming and importation of biotechnology crops in a major policy shift that seeks to make the country food secure and contain runaway prices.
President William Ruto Monday chaired a Cabinet meeting that lifted the 2012 moratorium that restricted importation or open cultivation of GMO crops, making Kenya the second country in the continent after South Africa to allow biotechnology foods.
The approval comes in the wake of a biting drought that has exposed three million Kenyans to famine in 23 counties, forcing the government to intervene with relief food. Firms involved in GMO seed manufacturing will be some of the biggest beneficiaries of the policy shift that will put pressure on farmers to reduce prices or be forced out of the market.
The approval is meant to allow imports of GMO maize that are readily available in the market at a cheaper cost to help in lowering the price of flour which has now hit a high of Ksh200 ($1.65) for a two-kilo packet as the new government drops the subsidy scheme, which Dr Ruto termed as costly to the economy.
In consideration of the adoption of GMO crops, the Cabinet says it put into mind various expert and technical reports including that of Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, United States of America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
“In accordance with the recommendation of the Task Force to review matters relating to Genetically Modified Foods … the Cabinet vacated its earlier decision of November 8, 2012, prohibiting the open cultivation of genetically modified crops and the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations.
“Effectively lifting the ban on Genetically Modified Crops, by dint of the executive action open cultivation and importation of white (GMO) maize is now authorised,” reads a Cabinet memo.
Scientists argue the GMO maize variety can yield double what farmers are getting from the conventional breeds given that they are drought tolerant and can withstand pests and diseases.
Timothy Njagi, a research fellow with Egerton University-based Tegemeo Institute, says the decision was long overdue.
"GMO maize is cheaper than the conventional one and once we start importing it will lower the cost of food locally,” said Dr Njagi.
Dr Njagi said GMO imports will also help in addressing the high cost of animal feeds, which have for the last three years remained at a historic high. The waiver on GMO imports, he said, will now see millers import other non-conventional materials used in making feeds such as soya.
Roy Mugiira, the chief executive officer of the NBA, which is the sector regulator, welcomed the move by the Cabinet. “In the coming few days, we shall now be issuing guidelines to be followed in importing or growing of these varieties, but I can say that it is now legal to have GMO crops in the country,” said Dr Mugiira.
The ban on GMOs was announced by former Health Minister Betty Mugo in 2012 after a journal by French scientist Eric Seralini claimed that these crops had a link to cancer after a mouse that was fed on it developed a cancerous tumour. The journal was, however, recalled two years later on grounds that it was not conclusive on the matter.
GM maize testing in Kenya started in 2010 but approval for the environmental release was granted by the NBA in 2016. The scientists completed research on genetically modified maize last year and the material has been awaiting approval by the Cabinet before release for commercial farming.
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