News Column

Researchers in a fix over GMO ban

August 18, 2014

JEFF OTIENO The EastAfrican -1

Research on genetic technology in Kenya has stalled after some multinational companies pulled out following the government's blanket ban on genetically modified products.

The country had planned to commercialise some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) once research on their safety and productivity is concluded, but that seems to have stalled after the ban.

Some of the developers of the technology have pulled out due to the uncertainty about the future of GM technology in the country.

The government banned the importation of GM products into the country in 2012, following a controversial study by French scientists led by Gilles-Eric Seralini that linked such products to cancer.

The findings of the study were published in the journal Food Chemical Toxicology in September 2012. They were, however, recanted after it was established that the authors did not adhere to internationally accepted standards for undertaking research.

Biotechnology companies like Monsanto have been working with local GMO research institutions, providing funding and expert advice. Other non-governmental organisations, mainly from the developed world, have also been funding GMO research.

One of the products, expected to have hit the local market by now, is the Bt cotton which had undergone successful trials at the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari).

READ: Kenya to start production of biotech cotton in 2014

"We had completed the laboratory and field trials for Bt cotton and even submitted the report to the National Biosafety Authority as required by law. In fact, the NBA was impressed with our findings," said Charles Waturu, one of Kari's lead scientists on Bt cotton. The NBA is a government body established to regulate GMOs in the country.

Monsanto, which invested in the Bt cotton study, cancelled the introduction of the technology pending the government's decision on the crop.

"The ban is affecting us negatively because the products can improve food security and livelihoods in the country. We need to move fast," said Dr Waturu.

He said the Bt cotton would be beneficial to farmers if allowed to be commercialised, since it will reduce the need for pesticides from about 12 to three times in the crop's lifespan.

Bt cotton has a gene that is resistant to bollworm, one of the destructive pests found in the East African region.

"Of all the input in cotton, 32 per cent is channelled to pest control, and the Bt cotton will lead to a reduced number of pesticide sprays until harvest time," Dr Waturu said.

Kenya had planned to emulate Columbia, which raised its farmers' incomes and cotton yields after adapting Bt cotton. The South American country is now one of the leading producers of Bt cotton in the world.

According to the Ministry of Industrialisation, the country only produces 11,000 metric tonnes of cotton annually against a national lint demand of 111,000 metric tonnes. The deficit is normally supplemented with imports from Uganda and Tanzania.

One of the key challenges facing the textile industry is low productivity and poor quality of cotton.

Textile industry

Research on Bt maize has also stalled. The study was at the confined field trials stage, and was being conducted at Kari's Kiboko field station in the east of the country.

"We wanted to move the trials to the farm and we were looking at 2016 for its commercialisation but it seems this will not be possible because of the ban," said former Kari director, Ephraim Mukisira, who was at the helm during the trials.

Dr Mukisira said Kari was satisfied with the way the maize trials were going before the ban.

"Bt maize has the potential of increasing the country's maize yields, which have stagnated for a long time now. It is also resistant to pests likes stem borer and grain borer," he added.

Maize production, for instance, declined from 39.7 million bags in 2012 to 38.9 million bags last year, according to the Economic Survey, 2014.

This year, the Ministry of Agriculture says maize production is expected to decline by between five and 15 per cent due to plant diseases and vagaries of weather.

Agriculture Secretary Felix Koskei has already announced that the government will import maize from Tanzania to fill the deficit and ensure price stabilisation.

Last year, the Ministry of Health established a taskforce chaired by Kihumbu Thairu, one of the country's leading biomedical scientists, to give direction on GMOs. The taskforce has already completed and presented its report to the Cabinet Secretary of Health, James Macharia.

Prof Thairu said all the issues raised by the public have been addressed in the taskforce report, which is yet to be made public.

READ: Parliament to study Thairu report amid clamour for lifting of ban

The Agriculture Ministry declined to comment on the matter, saying the Health Ministry-appointed taskforce should be in a better position to deal with the issue.

However, sources said the report will not be made public until the Cabinet discusses it first and a decision is made.

Dr Waturu expressed hope the government will lift the ban, saying the technology recently received support from the Deputy President William Ruto, who told a scientific conference last month that African countries need to adopt biotechnology to increase food production.

"We need to ask ourselves: 'How do we get farmers to use benefits of science and biotechnology to deal with the problems of hunger and poverty?' We should endeavour to demystify scientific and technological knowledge for farmers in our countries so that this knowledge can be applied to ensure food security," Mr Ruto said.

County governors have also vowed to lobby the government to lift the ban on GMOs, arguing it is not possible to produce enough food using traditional methods alone.

All the EAC partners are signatories to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a global framework that supports safe handling, use and transfer of living modified organisms.

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: East African, The

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