AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY

GMO revolution is irreversible

If ban is lifted, it will boost delivery of two of the Big Four agenda—food security and manufacturing.

In Summary

• Government banned importation of GMOs in 2013 dealing a blow to progress on biotechnology research.

• Bt Cotton has been undergoing national performance trial  and is now “at the verge of commercialisation”.

GMO revolution is irreversible
GMO revolution is irreversible
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

The country recently held a national dialogue on genetically modified organisms at the University of Nairobi. Agricultural Research PS Hamadi Boga told the participants that Kenya currently produces two tonnes per hectare of maize, against the global standards of 12. This leaves a deficit that can only be bridged through importation.

In the face of drought in most arid and semi-arid regions, Prof Boga spoke of the need to innovate and embrace technologies to boost productivity levels so communities in drought-stricken areas don’t have to overly depend on relief food.

This is was an apparent reference to the use of climate-smart technologies such as agricultural biotechnology, which have been proven to improve productivity in arid areas.

But the deployment of biotechnology was halted when the government, through an executive order in 2013, banned the importation of GMOs, dealing a significant blow to progress on biotechnology research and development.

Having been involved in this debate as a science journalist, what is now clear is the need to let the different authorities established by relevant laws and guided by best scientific practices, knowledge and facts, do their work. The rest are just sideshows with own interest to serve.

Boga, however, gave of hope for those keen on biotech research and development when he suggested, without giving much information, that the government would make a decision on the ban in a month.

This came after President Uhuru Kenyatta called for quick deployment of Bt Cotton to help revive the collapsed textile industry during his State of the Nation address last month.

Bt Cotton has been undergoing national performance trial in different sites and is now “at the verge of commercialisation”. The performance trial was done after an environmental release approval by the National Bio-safety Authority in 2016, based on Environmental Impact Assessment clearance certificate and licence for open field trials issued in 2018.

If the ban is lifted, this will be a remarkable boost in delivering the government’s two Big Four agenda goals—food security and manufacturing.

Consequently, this move will reverse the many years of resistance and delay that have caused Kenya to lag behind other African countries such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Malawi and Nigeria, which have allowed the growing of Bt Cotton, and deployment and use of Bt technology. This will put to a stop the debate among the proponents and opponents of biotechnology.

 

Moving away from debates to dialogues, the national dialogue on GMOs provides a platform for the public to engage in a sober manner. It moves the issue away from the tantrums we have seen before, where parties try to shoot down the other by peddling truths and half-truths about the technology.

One of the issues that have marked the debate on agricultural biotechnology is whether Kenya has adequate human, regulatory and scientific capacity needed to handle and deploy GMOs.

But Dr Richard Oduor, the chairman of Kenya Biotechnology Consortium and one of the panellists during the dialogue, was quick to point out that “Kenya has the infrastructure and human capacity needed for research and regulation of biotech crops, including over 100 scientists engaged in research and development activities across the country, strong scientific communities and competent regulatory agencies such as NBA, Nema and Kephis.”

Having been involved in this debate as a science journalist, what is now clear is the need to let the different authorities established by relevant laws and guided by best scientific practices, knowledge and facts, do their work. The rest are just sideshows with own interest to serve.

Kenyan scientists have on many occasions called on politicians and the anti-GMOs movement to stop distorting discussions on GMOs but to embrace dialogue with scientists to make decisions from an informed position.

Prof Boga called on the public not to shy away from embracing new ideas and technologies because of the perceived fears, especially when scientific data and facts are available. “Kenya should not be left behind in this era of biology,” he said.

The truth is, the biotechnology revolution is irreversible with its various socioeconomic and even political implications. Kenya needs to position herself to benefit from new and emerging technologies in agriculture. Biotechnology revolution is a major cornerstone of the 21st Century socioeconomic progress, which Kenya should not miss out on.

Science commentator and communications specialist