News Column

Not Every Huge Chicken or Big Tomato Is GM

January 20, 2014

Agatha Ngotho

Last week, the National Biosafety Authority received its ISO certification. Our writer AGATHA NGOTHO spoke to the organisation's CEO WILLY TONUI.

Briefly explain how the journey has been so far for NBA.

The roadmap to certification started off in June, 2012 under the stewardship of our top management team, steering committee and the support from the board of management. Through the guidance from Millennium Management Consultants, NBA made the initial steps of raising staff awareness and training on Quality Management Systems. This was followed by identification of existing gaps, the development of key ISO 9001: 2008 standard operating procedures (SOPs) and departmental documents in preparation for certification.

What does this mean for the National Biosafety Authority?

Towards the realisation of NBA mandate which is to exercise general supervision and control over dealings in genetically modified organisms with a view to ensuring safety to human and animal health and protection of the environment, the authority has developed a number of SOPs to facilitate its operations. Since implementation of these processes, there has indeed been significant improvement on the delivery of our services to our stakeholders and customers. This has partly led to the improvement of customer satisfaction level of our internal and external clients and we are working harder to improve on this area as we continue to perfect our systems.

When is the first GM crops expected to be commercialised in Kenya?

We cannot confirm this at the moment since NBA does not directly drive the process. This is dependent on those who develop the GM products. The procedure is that an applicant submits an application to be considered by NBA as outlined in the Environmental Release Regulations, 2011. What we wish to inform the public and the stakeholders in general is that NBA is prepared to handle any GMO commercialisation application when received. To-date, the authority has not received any application for environmental release.

What are some of the approved GM activities currently going on in Kenya?

We have approved several GM projects that are at laboratory and confined field trial stage. Some of the ongoing GMO research projects include water efficient maize (drought tolerant maize); insect resistance maize; virus resistant cassava; biofortified cassava; and biofortified sorghum. Confined field trials on Bt cotton had earlier been completed and is ready for the next phase of environmental release application should the developers decide so.

What is Kenya's stand on labelling of GM products?

The Labelling Regulations were gazetted in May 2012 and therefore has been in force since then. These regulations require that all approved GM products must be labelled so long as they contain GM content above one per cent. Those that contain GM below one per cent need not to be mandatorily labelled. It is important to note that the purpose of the labelling regulation is for consumer information and for the purposes of traceability and not safety.

Have you started implementing the labelling regulations?

Yes, we have implemented the regulations. However, as stated earlier, the country has not commercialised any GMO for sale and with the current ban on import, there are no approved GM products available in the market at the moment.

In your speech last week, you mentioned that NBA has declared 2014 to be the year of raising assurance of safety in relation to GMOs. Explain this.

In response to public demands and expectations, the NBA management has declared that 2014 is the "year of raising assurance of safety during the development, handling and use of GMOs" and the driving theme is "strengthening national capacity for institutional and laboratory Biosafety". This will also be our theme for the Third Annual Biosafety conference to be held in August 2014.

What this means is that we are paying more attention to the development process of GMO. This applies mainly to institutions and laboratories involved in the process. As part of our assurance raising and related activities, we intend to assure integrity during the development, handling and transfer of GMOs. We also want to establish mechanisms for regular inventory of biosafety expertise and facilities in Kenya, to ensure transparent, predictable and science based-risk assessment of applications. To achieve this goal we intend to sustain the efforts gained last year which include sponsoring awareness seminars and workshops throughout Kenya, supporting development and implementation of guidelines in facilities undertaking research, testing, commercialisation of GMOs and training for Institutional Biosafety Committees.

What plans do you have to devolve the activities of NBA to the counties?

We are working closely with other regulatory agencies like the Kenya Bureau of Standards, Kenya Plant and Health Inspectorate Service and Department of Public Health to ensure that our services are available across the counties as need arise. In addition we have surveillance offices at Mombasa port, Namanga border, Busia border and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

What are some of the gains you have made so far?

The authority was established in 2009 after the Biosafety Act was enacted in 2009. The board of management was inaugurated in May 2010 and top management competitively recruited in January 2012. Since then, the authority has made a lot of progress in the implementation of its mandate. Through stakeholder consultations, four biosafety regulations have been developed and published including Biosafety (Contained use) Regulations, 2011; Biosafety (Environmental Release) Regulations, 2011; Biosafety (Import, Export and Transit) Regulations, 2011 and the Biosafety (Labelling) Regulations, 2012. These regulations together with internal guidelines and SOPs have operationalised the Biosafety Act.

The authority has considered and reviewed more than 10 GMO applications on laboratory and greenhouse trials, seven applications on confined field trials, 28 applications on imports and trans-boundary movement of GM products in neighbouring countries. The authority has also endeavoured to monitor approved research projects to ascertain compliance to biosafety laws as well as to the approval conditions. This monitoring is done jointly by NBA with other relevant regulatory agencies that have related roles in the implementation of the biosafety laws.

The authority has posted all decisions made in our website -- -- as well as the international Biosafety Clearing House for public information and sharing.

In early 2012, the management identified the need for the authority to adapt to acceptable international standards of quality management in order to better serve the needs of our customers. We started the journey with our committed staff and other stakeholders culminating to our ISO 9001:2008 certification.

To enhance surveillance programme and prevent illegal importation of GMOs, the authority opened and deployed biosafety inspectors at major entry points of the country including Mombasa Port, Busia, Namanga and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.The biosafety inspectors in these stations offer advisory services in addition to their routine assignments of sampling and testing for presence of GMOs in imported consignments.

In terms of performance contract being implemented by the government, the authority scores have drastically improved from fair performance in the year 2011 to very good performance in the year 2012 and 2013. The authority has also embarked on implementation of the Vision 2030 programmes on biotechnology initiative geared towards alleviation of poverty and food security.

The authority has been proactive and has partnered with a number of local and international bodies in the development and implementation of sound biosafety framework in the country. Some of these institutions include regulatory agencies such as Kephis, Kebs, National Environment Management Authority, Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Industrial Property Institute, Pest Control Product Board, State Department of Public Health and Department of Veterinary Services, National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, Notepad-African Biosafety Network of Expertise, Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Programme for Biosafety Systems. These partnerships have helped the authority to be at par with international standards of regulating biotechnology for the purpose of ensuring safety of products arising from modern science.

In your view, what would you say about Kenyans' understanding of GMOs, has it improved or is it still shrouded in myths?

Generally, the understanding has improved. However, we still need to do more on public awareness creation and education. There are Kenyans that still think a big chicken, a huge tomato or banana is a GMO, which is not true. These products could be from hybrid seeds that are well nourished.

Do Kenyans really know much about NBA and its functions? What measures are you taking to ensure that NBA is and remains relevant even at the grassroots level?

Some do not understand our role. In the past three years we have been doing a lot of awareness creation by holding workshops and seminars. This year, as we did last year, we shall conduct a media campaign so that we increase the level of biosafety awareness.

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Source: AllAfrica

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