Kenya’s decision on October 3 to allow cultivation and importation of genetically modified (GM) maize for mass consumption elicited mixed reactions in the country and East Africa, and exposed the incoherent policies on GM technology in the region.
While President William Ruto’s administration sees it as a means to unlock a supply line of relief food, easing hunger for millions of people in the country and the Horn of Africa, agriculture lobbies are urging caution, with some demanding that the government reverse the decision.
Kenya’s Cabinet said the decision to lift the 10-year ban was in response to the worst drought to hit the country in 40 years, which has left more than three million people on the verge of starvation.
But activists protested the move, raising concerns over the safety of GM foods.
"Food security is not just about the amount of food but the quality and safety of food," said a joint statement signed by a dozen groups, including Greenpeace Africa. "Our cultural and indigenous foods have proved to be safer, with diverse nutrients and with less harmful chemical inputs."
Kenya, like many other African nations, banned GM crops over health and safety concerns and to protect smallholder farmers, who account for the vast majority of rural agricultural producers in the country. But it faced criticism over the ban, including from the US, which is a major producer of GM crops.
On Monday, a statement issued by President Ruto's office said the decision was "a progressive step towards significantly redefining agriculture in Kenya by adopting crops that are resistant to pests and disease."
It said the Cabinet had considered expert views and technical reports, including by Kenya's National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the European Food Safety Authority before arriving at the decision.
But the lobbies say the move was made without public participation and that it "essentially curtails the freedom of Kenyans to choose what they want to eat."
"We demand that the ban be immediately reinstated and an inclusive participatory process be instituted to look into long-term and sustainable solutions to issues affecting food security," they said.
They added that lifting of the ban opened up the market to American farmers using sophisticated technologies and highly subsidised farming that risks putting small-scale farmers in Kenya out of business.
Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya's economy, contributing more than 20 percent of its GDP.
Dr Ruto was elected to the top job in August on a promise to turn around Kenya's stuttering economy and tackle inflation. Within weeks of taking office in September, he reduced the price of fertilisers to improve crop yields in the midst of the drought that has affected 23 of the 47 counties.
Four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, pushing millions across the Horn into extreme hunger.
Without a binding regional policy on GM technology, Kenya’s neighbours are scrambling to tighten controls, considering the porous borders.
Tanzania's Agriculture minister Hussein Bashe said Dodoma was firmly opposed to the use of biotechnology in food production and would impose stronger measures to prevent GM food or cash crops produced in "neighbouring countries" from finding their way into the country.
Dar es Salaam-based lobby African Organic Network (AfroNET) said Kenya acted without properly considering the long-term ramifications of GM technology on the collective health of its citizenry.
"They have taken a wrong approach to such a contentious issue. It is not simply about ensuring food security in times of drought, as they seem to think," said Constantine Akitanda, AfroNET spokesperson.
Kenya is the second country after South Africa to back out of an African Union resolution to adopt organic agriculture instead of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) methods to minimise the effects of climate change.
According to Akitanda, South Africa has been trying out GM farming for the past 25 years but is "only now realising that the hopes and dreams they had when they started have not materialised."
"Kenya is now on course to also learn the hard way. The WFP [World Food Programme] stipulates in its own guidelines that any food crops it endorses for exchange between countries must be non-GMO, which means Kenya may have to forget about exporting any of its own farm produce," he said.
On the argument that GM crops could help alleviate food scarcity, Akitanda added: "Africa has enough arable land to produce sufficient food without deploying unnatural methods to boost production."
He said African countries need to withstand external pressures to embrace GM technology.
Observers say Kenya’s rash decision is informed by the need to open a window to receive relief food donations from countries that have authorised GMOs, such as the US.
The approval is meant to allow imports of GM maize that are readily and cheaply available on the market to help in lower the price of flour, which has hit a high of Ksh240 ($2) for a two-kilo packet after the new government dropped a subsidy scheme that Dr Ruto termed unsustainable.
The ban on GMOs was announced by former Health minister Beth Mugo in 2012, after a journal by French scientist Eric Seralini claimed that the crops had a link to cancer. The journal was, however, recalled two years later on grounds it was not conclusive on the matter.
GM maize testing in Kenya started in 2010 but approvals for the environmental release were granted by the National Biosafety Authority in 2016.
The scientists completed research on GM maize in 2021 and the material has been awaiting approval by the Cabinet before release for commercial farming.
Attempts by the East African Community (EAC) to legalise GMOs hit a snag back in 2013 as it emerged that partner states were at different stages in the formulation of biosafety policies and legislation.
Kenya and Uganda are leading the region in embracing agricultural biotechnology. Tanzania has formulated a policy for biosafety legislation and regulation but has been slow in allowing practice.
In Rwanda and Burundi, biotechnology research and development is mainly confined to conventional techniques and traditional biotech applications.
The EAC prepared and submitted the draft regional Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy to the Council of Ministers in 2014 during the 30th Ordinary Council of Ministers session.
The ministers made recommendations, including establishing a biotechnology and biosafety unit at the Secretariat to provide logistical, administrative and support to the policy framework. The matter is yet to take off.
“The meeting took note of the reports of the national consultations and made the following observations: capacity on the implementation of the national biosafety framework in application of biotechnology is inadequate,” says the EAC Regional Biosafety Report of 2013.
“However, lack of awareness, education and stakeholder participation is required for effective implementation of national biosafety frameworks.”
With maize being a staple in the region, scientists argue the GM maize can yield double what farmers are getting from the traditional breeds, given that it is drought-tolerant and can withstand pests and diseases.
Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute in Kenya, says the decision to allow GMOs was long overdue.
“GM maize is cheaper than the conventional one and once we start importing, it will lower the cost of food locally,” said Dr Njagi.
He said GMO imports will help address the high cost of animal feeds, which have for the past three years remained at a historic high.
The waiver on GMO imports would allow millers to import other non-conventional materials used in making feeds, such as soya.
In the wider region, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) has put in place a legal framework for GM produce.
In September 2013, the Fifth Comesa Joint Meeting of the Ministers of Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources endorsed a proposed common policy on biotechnology and biosafety, taking into account the sovereign right of each member state.
Comesa member countries are signatories to the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety but are at different stages of implementing the requirements, especially establishing their national biosafety regulatory frameworks, and adopting GM crops.
Comesa has a regional risk assessment mechanism for the sharing of information, resources and expertise.
The Cartagena Protocol, in force since September 2003, is an international agreement that aims to ensure safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology to protect biological diversity and risks to human health.
It establishes a procedure for prior informed agreement to ensure countries have the necessary information to make decisions about the importing of LMOs into their territory.
According to proponents of GM technology, the immediate benefit for Kenya could be unlocking billions of shillings for firms involved in the GMO industry.
Roy Mugiira, chief executive officer of the NBA, the regulator, welcomed the decision by Kenya’s Cabinet saying, “In the coming few days, we will be issuing guidelines on importing or growing of these varieties.”
By Luke Anami, Bob Karashani, Gerald Andae and AFP