News Column

OTIENO OTIENO: Isn't it time to evaluate the other side of biotec foods?

July 19, 2014


The ongoing controversy surrounding Unilever's food seasoning product Aromat has some little serving of comic relief to it.

Despite the labelling on its container indicating it has "modified maize flour (genetically modified material)" among its many ingredients, they still had to have it tested at the Kenya Plant Health Inspection Services labs to confirm the "traces of GMOs" in it.

Coming on the back of an intensive advertising campaign that saw the word Aromat readily adapted in social media slang, it is tempting to look at it somehow as a victim of its own success. The manufacturer has since gone to court to contest efforts by the government to have its food seasoning product withdrawn from the market.

Whatever the outcome of the court battle, the Aromat dispute has already done its fair share to rekindle debate on agricultural biotechnology in Kenya.

Last week, five county governors from former cotton-growing areas called a press conference in Kisumu to push for the planting of the Bt Cotton variety developed by a team of scientists, including those at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

Deputy President William Ruto, an outspoken supporter of biotechnology from his days as Agriculture minister, also weighed in with a ringing endorsement at a high-profile conference on agricultural financing in Nairobi.


The only downside is that some people might seize on what is essentially a sideshow to try to divert attention from the huge potential biotechnology has in defeating poverty and hunger among millions of Kenyans and block the commercialisation of such crops in the country.

Discussions around a food seasoning product like Aromat will no doubt evoke a measure of sentiment among the consuming middle class who go to the shopping malls and care how their meal looks or tastes.

They actually mirror the leisurely arguments in the rich European countries where overfed folks romanticise about food as it was produced in the Garden of Eden.

But a country like ours with so many lives to save from starvation in Turkana, Marsabit, Ukambani, Tana River and other arid areas can't afford the luxury of indulging in anti-science rebellion.

Former US president Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug, the Nobel prize winning agricultural scientist, couldn't have put it better in their preface to Robert Paarlberg's book, Starved For Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa: "Responsible biotechnology is not our enemy; hunger and starvation are."

The involvement of State regulatory agencies like Kephis and the National Biosafety Authority in the Aromat case shows that Kenya has made significant steps in addressing the foods' safety concerns. But to reap from the new green revolution, the government must summon the courage to take the next crucial step and commercialise genetically modified crops.

Otieno Otieno is chief sub-editor, Business Daily. Twitter: @otienootieno. Email:

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Source: Nation (Kenya)

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