The long wait is over. The government has finally lifted a 10-year ban on the cultivation of genetically modified food crops following the recommendation of a task force set up to review GMOs and food safety.
This is an emotive issue. However, with three million Kenyans facing starvation in the arid and semi-arid areas due to biting drought, a lasting solution to the perennial crisis is needed. The country must produce sufficient food for its people and research has shown that biotechnology is part of the answer.
The Cabinet decision effectively opens the door for the growing and importation of genetically modified white maize and other products. The technology should enable the adoption of crops that are resistant to pests and disease. It should also clear the way for the commercialisation of GM cotton, which is high-yielding and resistant to pests and disease. It will revamp the textile, animal feed and cooking oil industries.
However, concerns about the perceived harm in the supposed genetic manipulation of crop and animal production cannot be ignored. A continuous alert is, therefore, crucial.
It would be foolhardy for Kenya to stand in the way of technological advancement that has been tested and proven in research by competent institutions. The National Biosafety Authority, World Health Organization, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority cannot all be wrong. GM foods on the international market have also been found to pose no risk to human health. Nonetheless, more research is needed to enhance safety and ensure farmers, including smallholders, access affordable quality seeds to boost production.
A major issue of concern, though, is the control over seeds. Often cited is the grip of the seed monopoly by a few multinationals. Regulators must ensure fair distribution of seeds so that farmers are not held to ransom by profiteers.
Ethical conduct must be strictly enforced to ensure unscrupulous individuals and organisations don’t exploit helpless Kenyans.
Unless there are controls, the cost of production could spiral out of farmers’ reach, which would be counter-productive.