How Long Can Kenya Maintain the GMO Ban?

How Long Can Kenya Maintain the GMO Ban?

Kenya has been urged to lift a November 2012 ban on the importation of genetically modified (GM) foods, popularly referred to under the umbrella term GMOs. In a fresh bid advocating for the adoption of the technology, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that the move would boost the country’s potential in meeting the rising food production demand.

Kenya’s then-Minister of Public Health and Sanitation, Beth Mugo made the announcement after her recommendations to ban GM foods — based on the Seralini et al GM Rat Study released by a French university — were approved by cabinet.

The report, which indicated that the rodents under study developed signs and symptoms associated to cancer after being fed GM corn, was largely discredited by scientists globally, saying it was lacking in scientific procedure.

“Kenya has international obligations and should provide justifications behind the ban otherwise the message being sent out there is that the system is unpredictable and not transparent,” Zhulieta Willbrand, a U.S. Trade Specialist with the USDA told AFKInsider at a round table media discussion in Nairobi.

Creating of GMOs involves manipulation of the genetic material of organisms through procedures to isolate desirable elements and characteristics such as drought and pest resistance or early maturing varieties.

Although Kenya has a National Biosafety Authority (NBA), its biotechnology watchdog’s role — to supervise and control the transfer, handling and use of GMOs — has been reduced to controlling importation of GM products, mainly for use by research institutions.

“Although Kenya is leading in biotechnology in the East Africa region and has world renowned scholars in this field, it has yet to benefit from this capacity because of the ban,” Agricultural Counselor Kathryn Snipes said at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.

The ban has had far reaching financial repercussions for East Africa’s leading economy, especially at the port of Mombasa, as international shipping lines divert cargo to Somalia or Tanzania.

“Major shipping lines are also avoiding the port of Mombasa, denying us vital transit revenue as the business moves on to competing ports,” Francis Karin, a senior research assistant, at Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute told AFKInsider.

Local researchers are also missing out on the billions of dollars that are pumped into biotechnology.

Details on the Kenya Biosafety Clearing House indicate a number of approvals by the NBA. They include laboratory trials of transgenic corn, cassava and sorghum, all done at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). Research findings from all the ongoing trials at KARI are yet to be made public.

Kenya continues to suffer severe food shortages especially with poor rainfall patterns and floods which occur annually.

A January 2013 report by the USDA had forecast Kenya’s 2012-13 corn production at three million metric tons, down 100,000 metric tons from last year’s crop and above the five year average of 2.8 million metric tons.

The estimated decrease in production was attributed to several factors including delayed planting due to the late onset of Kenya’s 2012 rainy season, unavailability of seeds and fertilizers, higher than average precipitation in April and May, and an outbreak of maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease.

Above average rainfall at harvest time – November and early December 2012 – in Kenya’s grain basket, the North Rift, increased post-harvest losses.

Because of the decline in production, it is estimated that Kenya increased its corn imports to at least 600,000 metric tons by July 2013. Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia supplied most of the corn deficit because of Kenya’s current import ban on GMO products and the prevailing 50 percent ad valorem tariff on corn outside Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community member countries.

“It is still unclear why the state ignored its own agency [NBA] and instead used the Public Health Act to slap a ban on GMOs,” Karin said.

He warned that in the event that Kenya experiences a corn shortage this year, it would be difficult to source non-GMO corn to meet its deficit.

Kenya has traditionally relied on Malawi for its corn import needs. However, there could be a problem this time around given that donors are pulling out their subsidy from Malawi’s grain sector. This means Kenya will have to look elsewhere for supply of non-GMO corn.

“African countries that are already engaged in production of biotechnology crops include South Africa, Egypt, South Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda and Malawi,” said Willbrand.

There is a general agreement that biotechnology can solve Africa’s food insecurity problems. Since farming is the most important source of income and sustenance for about three quarters of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, there is no doubt that biotechnology can make substantial contributions toward increasing food production by rural and resource-poor farmers, while preserving declining resources such as forests, soil, water, and arable land.