The Kenyan Cabinet is over the next two months expected to make a monumental decision over lifting of a ban on genetically modified organisms.
Despite prolonged procrastination on the divisive technology, finally looks likely. The Cabinet is to decide on whether Kenya would lift the ban that was imposed in 2012 and which was informed by a controversial study that alleged GMOs cause cancer.
Kenya’s move will be closely watched by other East Africa countries including Uganda and Tanzania where research and contained trials of GM crops are ongoing.
The study, dubbed The Seralini Paper after its lead author Gilles-Eric Séralini, linked GMO maize to the development of tumours and other severe disease in rats, risks that could also, manifest in human beings.
While the study, which was retracted and republished, has widely been used by GMOs opponents to instill fear in opposing the technology, its credibility has been tarnished after three studies funded by the European Union on the glyphosate-resistant GM maize NK603 identified no potential risks.
One of the studies, the G-TwYST (GM Plant Two Year Safety Testing), has discredited the Seralini Paper with the conclusion that glyphosate did not show any genotoxic potential and there was no evidence of carcinogenicity in laboratory rats or mice.
“It was concluded that there were no adverse effects related to the administration of the GM maize NK603 cultivated with or without Roundup,” the report states.
The EU was prompted to carry out the studies considering the bloc is a major importer of GM products particularly maize and soybeans from South American countries.
To date, the European Commission has approved the import of 19 GM products in addition to 58 others that can be sold in the bloc.
According to Prof Dorington Ogoyi, National Biosafety Authority chief executive, Kenya is using the findings of the studies to build a case for lifting the ban to allow the country benefit from GMO technology and also allow the importation of GM foodstuffs.
“We have a strong case for lifting of the ban and besides what we are doing locally we hope the Cabinet will take into account what is happening on the global arena,” he told The EastAfrican.
He added that Kenya has enacted watertight regulations and mechanisms to ensure safety to human and animal health and also to the environment.
However, some NGOs have opposed the campaign to lift the ban on the basis that Kenya does not conclusively understand the dangers of GMOs and that lifting the ban could open the country to potential risks.
Despite the opposition, NBA contends that GMO crops have the ability to ensure the country achieves food security and to play a central role in the revival of the textile industry.
Kenya is in the process of carrying out national performance trials for Bt maize, which has been engineered with reduced levels of insect manifestation, meaning that indirectly farmers will use fewer inputs.
Apart from maize, other food crops going through confined field trials are cassava, which has been engineered against viruses, sweet potato against bacteria and sorghum for enhancement of nutrition.
The Maize Industry Task Force in its report also recommended the adoption of GMO maize to enable Kenya increase production, thus solving the persistence national maize deficit that stands at eight to 10 million bags annually.
Moreover, lifting of the ban will enable Kenya import cheap maize from countries like Brazil and South Africa to cover domestic shortfalls.
Of importance is that imported GMO food will be clearly labelled to distinguish it from organic food crops and will have a barcode with information including provisions for traceability.
Apart from maize, Kenya has made significant progress on Bt cotton having completed the first national performance trials and it is carrying out second trials in various parts of the country.
Results from the first trials show the Bt cotton (genetically modified pest-resistant cotton variety, which produces an insecticide to bollworm) performed well in terms of insect resistance while its quality was way above the conventional varieties.
The government hopes this will transform manufacturing, particularly the textiles and apparel sector largely on the industry, with BT cotton being the common denominator.
Kenya projects that successful commercialisation of Bt cotton is key in increasing revenue from the textile and apparels industry from $350 million to $2 billion, creating 500,000 cotton jobs and 100,000 new apparel jobs by 2022.
“There is a concerted drive to ensure the manufacturing sector is revived and Bt cotton is a big component in the textile industry,” noted Prof Ogoyi.
Currently, only two countries in Africa allow for commercial cultivation of GM crops.
The two, South Africa and Sudan, have a total of 2.8 million hectares under GM crops according to data of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
Though South Africa allows GM food crops in the form of biotech maize which account for between 70 and 80 per cent of maize consumed in the country, and soybeans besides cotton, Sudan allows only biotech cotton.