Despite Kenya being further along in the region with a comprehensive legal framework to regulate GMO use, adoption of genetically modified products remains a subject of heated debate on whether or not the country is ready.
Researchers have been among the most perplexed that, mostly bogged down by moral concerns over GMOs, the country could be losing out, especially in the face of perennial food and nutrition crisis.
Kenya has the highest concentration of organisations working on GMOs in East Africa, amplifying the question why it should take so long for acceptance. For this reason, it did not pass notice of many observers that when Uganda’s National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill did not gain presidential assent last December, it was not because of public approval, but whether farmers’ patent rights had been taken into consideration.
In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament, President Yoweri Museveni was concerned that the proposed GMO “law apparently talks of giving monopoly of patent rights to its holder and forgets about the communities that developed the original material.”
Citing examples that included, among others, local strains of millet and beans, as well as the striking long-horned Ankole cattle, he argued they possess “a specific genetic makeup which our people have developed for millennia through selection” to allow the new science of genetic engineering to take all the credit for adding qualities such as drought resistance, quick maturity and disease resistance.
These qualities describe a universal endeavour, and therefore familiar with Kenyans. But neither is the patent concern far-fetched. The 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture recognises “the enormous contribution farmers have made to the ongoing development of the world’s wealth of plant genetic resources.”
In ensuring conservation, the treaty also aims to ensure that access to genetic resources already protected by international property rights is consistent with international and national laws.
Thus, even as the Ugandan parliament considers the concerns raised, the question should be asked where our Ugandan brethren’s attitude shift occurred in GMO acceptance that the Kenyan policy-makers appear to still be having trouble grappling with.
It will be recalled how during the 4th Kenya National Biosafety Conference in 2015, hopes were raised when the government announced intention to lift the ban on GMOs.
The proscription had been in place since 2012 following a ministerial ban that a subsequent analysis alleged had been informed by the controversial study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini claiming GMO links to cancer following trials with rats.
The now infamous Seralini paper has since been scientifically recanted after it was established not to have adhered to internationally accepted standards for research. There is also the argument that GMOs have been on the market around the world since 1996, suggesting that “if all GMOs were an immediate health threat, we would know it by now.”
This is not to say concerns over GMOs are invalid. It is not merely a matter of perception that the science behind genetically modified food could potentially be harmful. In as much as it could be for the good, it likewise could inadvertently be misapplied potentially endangering an entire food supply and ecosystem. Also, any possible impact could take more than a generation to realise any harmful effects.
However, neither has this stopped commercialisation. Where it is allowed, well labelled GM products to alert interested or concerned buyers have long been on sale even in Africa, including cultivation in countries such as Sudan, Burkina Faso and South Africa.
While this is not a race with the neighbours, whether Kenya shall be ready or not, it appears certain GM products could soon be commercially available across the border with the possibility they could find their way into the country.
For those concerned, perhaps it should be of some consolation that with a regional policy framework already in mind, all the EAC Partner States have ratified the Cartagena Protocol, the international agreement that aims to ensure safe handling, transport and use of GMOs. In the meantime, other than the ongoing transgenic development and field trials of crops, the ban still stands on their importation into the country. —The writer is a development communications consultant working across East Africa — @gituram