The team headed by Prof Kihumbu Thairu is scheduled to complete its public hearings on the matter by the end of this month and advise the government on whether or not a ban on the importation of GM foods should be lifted.
The taskforce was appointed by Heath secretary
The advisory is likely to draw supporters and critics in equal measure considering the unique position in which the country finds itself — where 1.7 million Kenyans are faced with starvation.
The evolution of the GM policy environment began more than 35 years ago but the policy contradictions and reversals have not boosted
Vision 2030 acknowledges science, technology and innovation as key to boosting the country's wealth and social welfare and the Agriculture Sector Development Strategy recognises the important role biotechnology could play in increasing productivity and ensuring food security.
The Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act on the other hand gives the
"The new seed policy singles out modern biotechnology as one of the pillars of food security very positively but on the other hand when you look at food and nutrition security policy, it is silent on biotechnology and GM food.
"Human factors and the irrational fear of the unknown continue to influence policy making," she said.
So what then informs the hardliner positions of the two sides of the GMO divide?
READ: Looming food crisis rekindles debate on GMOs
Supporting GMO technology
Dr Joel W Ochieng, a senior lecturer at the
Is there a misconception about GMOs in the country?
Yes. GMOs are generally not well understood because of the low level of public awareness on biotechnology and the deliberate misinformation by people with vested interests, like the commercial interests associated with GM maize. That is why you find photos of a syringe being punched into a tomato.
Are GMOs the Frankenstein foods?
Yes they are, in the broad sense because of the benefits they provide through the modification of genes and not tissues.
However, the term Frankenstein foods means different things to different people, as confirmed by the various definitions on the Web.
Do you think that the ban against importation of GM foods was misinformed?
The ban may have been misinformed because of the Seralini study, but a broader look shows that it was done in public interest and for common good following the shocking publication that portrayed a great health risk scenario.
While human safety is admittedly a very emotive subject, most scientists were surprised and disappointed that the government was misadvised by individuals or institutions that deliberately hid the truth — the truth of what exactly the data and the authors claimed.
If we choose to believe the study, we should also consider what it said about a common fertiliser chemical roundup that even in the lowest dilutions caused more tumours in the subject rats than the GM maize.
This is to mean that the
We are happy that this work has been invalidated by the journal that published it, meaning the government did not expose anyone to harm through the use of Roundup Ready as would have been supposed if the Seralini et al paper stood the test of time.
READ: Journal retracts article that linked GMO food to cancer
What is the benefit of importing and producing GMO?
Agricultural production in
GMO crops increase agricultural production, improve nutrition and reduce losses such as by developing pest-resistant varieties of crops — as is the case with BT maize.
Importing GMO foods helps many of those living with HIV and TB depend on fortified blended and specially formulated food rations like the corn-soy blend, most of which contain GM material.
Imports also allow the government to deal with emergency response to intermittent starvation in the country like the shortage that we are currently facing.
The frequent interventions by the World Food Programme and other development partners in terms of relief could easily be GM-based because of where the food is sourced.
What has been the impact of the ban so far?
The lives of those living with diseases like HIV and TB and who depend on fortified blends and specially formulated food rations remain in jeopardy following this ban because most contain some GM proportions.
This is in addition to the fact that food aid interventions have also been impacted because relief food cannot reach the drought-stricken areas.
The ban has also imposed a non tariff barrier to trade between
Research on biotechnology, especially on GM technology, will be affected and funding will ultimately reduce because the key product is banned.
Fewer students will also be attracted to the biotech courses yet capacity is required to regulate, develop and test for GMO once it is allowed again.
READ: Scientists want the government to lift the ban on GMO imports
Are the fears of disease and pest resistance as well as seed patenting valid?
If disease and pest resistance refer to the 'super-weed' hypothesis, then this is an evolutionary principle that is likely to occur in nature without GM development. At some point, weeds and pests adapt to the environmental changes and the same is true even in the case of GM crops.
Many farmers also fear that if you, who is not growing GM foods, are next to a farm that does, your crop ends up being contaminated. These fears of gene flow from transgenic fields to landraces, however, are controlled by regulations that provide for 'buffer zone' for GM fields.
Seed patenting is a valid fear, especially with regards to terminator gene application. This would make farmers slaves of the seed giants as seeds from their crop cannot be replanted.
However, many jurisdictions, including
Do you think the
Through a three-year nationwide survey in the course of public education on biosafety (2010-2013), we found that people had full confidence in
However, only 30 per cent knew of
The authority, therefore, needs to find ways of regaining public confidence in their competencies.
Is there any genetic modification happening in the country apart from the food sector?
Yes, we have BT Cotton on field trials at Kari Thika, scheduled to be released to farmers by next year 2014.
This is cotton modified for resistance to the stubborn cotton ball worm that devastates many cotton farms across the world.
Against modified organisms
Is there a misconception about GMOs in the country?
Yes, I think there is a lot of misconception about genetic engineering in agriculture and the benefits we expect them to have vis a vis what other countries have experienced.
We feel that there is a lot of hype about any benefits of GMO food and the reality is probably very different. A lot of times questions on the environmental, health and socioeconomic risks associated with the foods are not addressed by the scientists.
Are GMO the Frankenstein foods?
The main campaign has always been that if we go on farming the way we are, we will not be able to feed future generations at the current growth rate. But all factors considered, if one does a cost-benefit analysis of GM foods, do the costs outweigh the benefits?
If our main target is to address food insecurity in the country then GMOs are not the way to go.
What we need in this country is water, good agricultural practices and extension services. If we can invest in good water harvesting techniques I can guarantee you that we do not need GMO crops.
What are the demerits of GMO foods?
If you look at the socioeconomic risks, there have been cases of farmers in
There have also been reports of farmers in
There have been issues of intellectual property rights because the seeds are patented and, based on the experiences of other countries, we find that once farmers take on GM seeds availability of the other non-GM seeds becomes difficult or they are restricted by buyers like flour processors who only want GM foods.
Reports in increased allergies for people growing BT cotton and skin and asthma allergenic conditions that could be linked to GM foods should also be investigated before we embrace them.
Herbicide-tolerant crops have also been known to affect beneficial insects like butterflies and bees that aid in pollination and there are ongoing studies in the US of linkages between the use of herbicide-tolerant crops and declining bee colonies.
Big companies like
They push for green revolution, which advocates for the increased use of fertilisers and herbicides, yet it has for long been known to have linkages with health concerns.
Often they compare
The truth is that even when you go to the bread basket areas, farmers will tell you that it reaches a point where even when you add more fertiliser it does not affect the yield because the organic matter is low and crops need organic matter to grow healthy.
If we embrace herbicide-tolerant GMOs we will increase the use of Roundup Ready, which will affect non-target organisms and even human beings. It will not reduce but increase pesticide use.
Independent scientists have also reported health issues in subject rats that have been exposed to GM foods, with some developing cancerous tumours and others having their reproductive systems affected.
This needs to be investigated thoroughly by scientists at our own local level because the health of consumers is at stake.
Do you think that the ban against importation of GMO was misinformed?
That is what most pro-GMO people want us to believe. One of the things that the public has been made to believe is that the ban was wholly made because of the Seralini study.
We believe that the
Should the withdrawal of the Seralini study by the
When they retracted the article on the Seralini study they commended the scientist because he was cooperative and gave all data needed to evaluate whether there was anything cooked.
What the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal said was that they did not find anything wrong with the study.
They said the data was correct and factual based on subject rats, though the results of the study were inconclusive.
Nothing was forged or wrong and that is why it was retracted. When he made the results public, Seralini himself said the data he found was inconclusive and that there was need to further interrogate his findings.
The retraction statement did not say anything new and we do not see the reason for them to withdraw the article.
There have also been reports of conflict of interest within the journal's editorial team, with some members being former employees of biotech companies.
We believe that the Seralini study had merit but because of the pressure of biotech companies the editorial team opted to retract the article.
Rather than scientists in the country using the retraction as a basis to advocate for lifting the ban they should conduct their own research locally and use the findings to disapprove the Seralini study. None of them has replicated what Seralini has done and tried to dismiss it.
We need to take into consideration the precaution of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety— where there is insufficient scientific evidence but there is a likelihood of harm, the precautionary principle should be embraced.
It would be hypocritical to throw out Seralini study without investigating the matter further.
Are the alleged impacts of the ban valid?
Lecturers are being hypocritical when they say the ban affects students in university who are studying biotechnology courses.
READ: Public varsity dons call for lifting of ban on GMOs
There is a lot more to biotech than genetic modification. Why can't the student work towards ways of dealing with post-harvest losses and innovative ways of promoting small scale irrigation rather than focusing on GM technology?
It is a misconception that is driven by the fear that funding for GM research and confined trials going on, which can be traced to big biotech companies, will reduce.
Do you think
Yes, the authority is competent enough but they do not have the capacity to ensure proper oversight in monitoring and policing. Sometimes when you get food imported for food aid, it finds its way into the market and Kenyans end up eating GM food that was not meant for commercialisation.
We also have the labelling act, which has been in place for one and a half years, requiring anything with more than one per cent GM to be labelled. But if you go to the supermarkets today you will not find anything that has been labelled as containing GMO unless its raw materials are imported.
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