Kenya Considers Lifting GMO Ban, Debates Traditional Seeds v. Patents

Kenya Considers Lifting GMO Ban, Debates Traditional Seeds v. Patents

The Kenyan government announced it plans to legalize technology for genetically modified organisms, prompting protests, IntellectualPropertyWatch reported.

During a biosafety conference in Nairobi in August, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto said the government would legalize GMO technology in November. This decision was made following intensive research, Ruto said, that GMO technology will improve agricultural production, health services and environmental conservation.

Protests over lifting the ban have been so intense that some scientists asked the government to investigate who is funding the organisations engaged in the debate to adopt or reject GMO crops, according to a report in DailyNation.

Kenya banned GMO technology in 2012 after a study by researcher Gilles Eric Seralini linked consumption of GMO corn to tumors in rats, IPWatch reports.

Smallholder farmers are concerned that multinational companies who hold rights to patented seeds will prohibit reusing next-generation seeds, to farmers’ detriment.

Some scientists in Kenya have been pushing to lift the ban, arguing that GMOs have been proven safe and can help fight hunger. GMO proponents say Kenya is lagging behind in adopting the technology in Africa.

Three African countries — Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa — allow GMOs.

“Kenya is ready for technology. I think the ban was ill advised and lifting it is a step in the right direction,” said Francis Nang’ayo, a scientist and chairman of regulatory affairs for African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum. “We have the policies, research and a regulatory authority.”

It’s wrong to demonize GMOs and blame the technology for everything, even cancer, Nang’ayo said. Kenya has been researching GMOs for years and has proved that GMO products are safe.

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“Keeping the ban is like going one step forward and then another backward. I think we are better than many other countries,” he said.

Anti-GMO campaigners, rights groups and local farmers warn that Kenya is not ready to adopt GMO technology or GMO food consumption.

“There are a lot questions around GMOs, with studies like the one done by Prof. Gilles Eric Seralini,” said Anne Maina, national coordinator for the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition.

Maina said some scientists are misinforming the public.

“I think there are too many grey areas and it would be very risky for us (Kenya) to adopt the technology at the moment,” said Collins Ochieng, director of the Community Rehabilitation and Environmental Protection Programme. Kenya should adopt a cautious approach to GMOs, Ochieng said.

If GMOs become legal, traditional vegetables sold in the open markets and supermarkets will be the first to disappear, Ochieng said.

Smallholder farmers in Kenya use open-pollinated seed varieties. Cross pollination with patented seeds is threatening to them, Maina said.

“The seeds are produced for the benefit of multinationals whose main agenda is profit,” Maina said. “They will become very expensive together with the use of chemicals that are used to ensure GMO seeds produce optimally.”

This represents unimaginable loss for smallholder farmers, Ochieng said. Farmers have been growing traditional seed varieties, but with the GMOs they will not only lose these through transfer of genes, but also find the new seeds unaffordable due to royalties, according to the experts.

“I think some forces want to control the global food chain through the GMOs,” Ochieng said.

Research shows small-scale farmers are the ones who stand to gain from GMO seeds, Nang’ayo said.

“Those who are growing Bt cotton in Burkina Faso are small scale farmers. They are also growing it in South Africa,” he said.

Bt cotton is a genetically modified organism cotton variety produced by Monsanto, a U.S. agrochemical and biotech company, that produces an insecticide against bollworm.

Despite labeling regulations in Kenya, GM foods keep circulating in the market without labels, opponents say.

The Kenya Bureau of Standards required packaging that allows consumers to choose between GMO-grown and organically grown foods, IPWatch reports. Enforcement of the labeling standard has been a challenge.

“GM foods keep circulating in the market without labels as per the standard and labeling regulation,” said Maina.

In 2007, GMO maize seed was discovered in Eldoret area of the Rift Valley, according to anti GMO activists. Some imported soy-based products like sausages and baby food were also found to contain GMOs. Maize, canola, sugar beet, soya and cotton are some of GMO products in the market, IPWatch reports.

“I can’t say we don’t need GMO foods, but the government has an obligation to show what is and what is not GMO,” said Sidi Otieno David, former president of Bunge la Mwananchi, a social advocacy group involved in GMO issues.