GMOs: The right to food and the right to know
Anne Maina, Coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA-K), shares her views with Christine Mungai, on why Kenya needs to tread cautiously when it comes to genetically modified crops.
What are GMOs, scientifically speaking?
That is a big question, with no short answer, but this is a simple definition that I have come across. “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.” (The Non-GMO Project, 2016). Most GMOs have been engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. However, new technologies are now being used to artificially develop other traits in plants, such as a resistance to browning in apples, and to create new organisms using synthetic biology. Despite biotech industry promises, the evidence is disputed that GMOs currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.
What is the history of GMOs in Kenya?
Kenya ratified the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety in 2003. It is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, and also taking also into account risks to human health. Since 2004, the Kenya GMO Concern (KEGCO) which later became the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) and is now registered as the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA-K) has been active on the issue. Their lobbying introduced an alternative Biosafety Bill in 2008 through one Member of Parliament, Silas Ruteere, to govern genetically engineered crops. However, the government quickly introduced their own bill which took precedence in Parliament. KEGCO however made positive contributions to the government-sponsored Biosafety Bill such as lobbying for the increase of a fine, from Kshs. 2,000 to Kshs. 2,000,000 for the unauthorised release of GMOs into the environment. The Biosafety Bill remained under discussion until 2009 when the Biosafety Act 2009 was signed into law by former President Mwai Kibaki.
What is the current status of GMOs in Kenya?
Here’s a quick status report of the current GMO applications in Kenya:
GMO Gypsophilla – An Israeli company called Imaginature (operating locally under the name Beauty Horticultural Firm) has applied to commercialise GMO Gypsophilla – a species of flower destined for export – in Kenya. GM Gypsophilla has not been commercialised anywhere else in the world. Imaginature is targeting the US market, stating it would grow the traditionally white flower engineered to a pink and red gypsophilla in greenhouses, and will only work with a few farmers in the Naivasha area. The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) raised some operational issues on Imaginature’s plan and is yet to make a determination. As BIBA Kenya, we raised some concerns on the gypsophilla entering the food chain when animals feed on it.
Bt Cotton – A conditional approval has been given by the NBA for commercialisation of Bt Cotton. The last confined field trial for Bt Cotton was done in 2010. BIBA Kenya has continuously raised questions on whether using findings from 2010, now nine years later, would still be valid, but the NBA replied that there is no change in the science or in the possibility of inadvertent release of Bt Cotton. Currently, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is being carried out by the NBA and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) in nine sites. The sites include Kambi Mawe (Makueni), Mwea, Busia, Kibos, Tana River and Garissa. The Government of Kenya has also constituted a Task Force by the Ministry of Trade and Ministry of Agriculture working towards the revival of the cotton industry. BIBA fears that the task force is being used to push for Bt Cotton adoption in Kenya even when evidence from Burkina Faso and India shows a complete failure of the Bollgard II variety of Bt Cotton. This is also worrying because only 40% of Bt Cotton is for fibre while 60% is for oil for human consumption, cotton seed cake and straw for animal feed.
Bt Maize – A conditional (limited) approval was made for Bt Maize but trials have not yet been conducted. One GMO variety, called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), is being tested in Kitale and Kiboko. WEMA is a project led by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation and The African Biotechnology Stakeholders’ Forum. The insect-resistant MON810 has had an environmental impact assessment done and sent to the National Environmental Management Authority but no permit has yet been given.
The topic of GMOs is controversial. What are the main arguments in support of GMOs?
The main argument for the promotion of GMOs is that it is the solution to the global hunger crisis and will boost food security. One recent report from the Food and Agricultural Organisation reveals that some 375 million people, representing over 29% of the population in Africa, suffered from severe food insecurity in 2017. Proponents of GMOs also argue that it will reduce the use of pesticides. For example, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a GM variety of maize, has been said to be resistant to the maize stalk borer.
What are the arguments against using GMOs?
GMOs typically are grown in monoculture environments and are thus a threat to our biodiversity, as well as seed and food sovereignty. The genetic engineering being pursued is intended to make crops more tolerant to synthetic chemicals and herbicides like glyphosate (RoundUp). Glyphosate has been classified as a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organisation. This may explain the increasing cases of cancer, infertility, birth defects and allergies being seen among Kenyans and the world over. The intensive use of synthetic chemicals damages our environment and undermines critical biodiversity. In Kenya, we are struggling with soil acidity. Chemical inputs are lethal to insect pollinators and have led to the collapse of bee populations all over the world. There has also been the development of super pests, which are much more difficult to manage. Furthermore, there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. To date, there have been no epidemiological studies investigating the potential effects of GMO food on human health. Most of the research used to claim that GMOs are safe has been performed by biotechnology companies.
From a consumer perspective, why should the public know about GMOs?
As Kenyans, we should be provided with the information necessary to make informed consumer choices. What we eat, and who we support by choosing to buy what we buy, is a very personal decision. It influences our health and the livelihoods of our communities, and it impacts the profits of big corporations. In Article 46 (1) of the Constitution of Kenya, consumers have the right to goods and services of reasonable quality and to the information necessary for them to gain full benefit from the said goods and services. Article 46 (1) (c) specifically states that consumers have the right to the protection of their health, safety and economic interests. It follows that Kenyans have the right to know what they are eating, which includes information about how their food is produced, transported, stored, packed and prepared. So, to answer your question, we should know about GMOs, because it is our right to know and that is reason enough.
Are GMOs the solution to food insecurity in Kenya? Will they help us achieve our right to food? Why or why not?
GMOs are not the solution to Kenya’s hunger problems. Food security is not a problem of production. It is a problem of access (affordability) and distribution. Those who can afford to buy food don’t go hungry in Kenya. Genetically engineered seeds and crops have been presented by authorities and certain corporates as a panacea to achieving food security in Kenya and Africa at large. However, these modified seeds and farm produce represent a corporate takeover of our food systems. Overdependence on corporates for seeds and other farm inputs has increased our vulnerability to shocks related to food production. It lures farmers into the use of agrochemicals and stands in the way of sustainable solutions such as ecological agriculture. If we want to solve food insecurity and realise the right to food in Kenya, we should consider the context in which we are working. We need to support and invest in smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women, and who produce more than 70% of the country’s food. Smallholder farmers and pastoralists are, sadly, also, a group of people who are faced with chronic food insecurity.
GMOs have failed smallholder farmers in other African countries. What are some case studies we can learn from?
South Africa and Burkina Faso are both case studies illustrating that GMOs are part of a model of agriculture that throws farmers into long-term dependencies, undermines biodiversity and, by promoting large-scale industrial infrastructure, drives millions into more, not less poverty. In South Africa, GMO maize has failed, with seeds even failing to germinate. Farmers growing Bt Cotton were faced with enormous loans from the high costs of seeds and inputs. After the introduction of Bt Cotton, the farmers were hit with droughts and low cotton prices, 80% of farmers defaulted on their loans and the project failed (Pambazuka News, 2005). In Burkina Faso, farmers abandoned Bt Cotton and the government banned it in 2016, barely three years after it was commercialised. The main challenge was that Bt Cotton was of poorer quality, with shorter strands that were rejected by the world market. The price of Bt Cotton also rose almost 40 times as compared to the conventional varieties. In these cases, it was clear that the GMO agenda was just about multinationals getting a grip of the market, owning the patent and making a profit.
If you could ask Kenyans to take action on the question of GMOs, what would you say?
Say no to GMOs and the corporate capture of our food systems. Eat healthy. Go organic.
Anne Wanjiku Maina is the National Coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (formerly Kenya Biodiversity Coalition – KBioC). She is an activist with over eight years’ experience working with various civil society organisations and regional networks such as the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) and Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association. Anne is a holder of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and is an alumna of International Biosafety Course from University of Tromso, Norway; and she is also an alumna of International Course on Hazard Identification of Transgenic Gene Flow and Risks Assessment of GMOs also from University of Tromso, Norway.