If there is a perfect example of reckless messaging in President William Ruto’s government, it is to be found in the Cabinet Secretary for Trade and Investment Moses Kuria.
His controversial remarks supporting the importation of GM maize were thoughtless, irresponsible and indicative of an arrogance in government that treats the citizens and their concerns with utter contempt.
There were already legitimate issues being raised about the decision to lift the 10-year ban on genetically modified (GM) foods but his callous remarks added fuel to the fire and also undermined whatever rationale governments may offer.
Mr Kuria did not offer a cogent justification for GMO on Thursday while announcing a window for duty-free maize imports to combat the ravaging famine. He, instead, launched into a characteristic tirade, saying that life in Kenya exposes one to myriad risks of death, so there is nothing wrong with adding GMOs to the list of killers.
What, essentially, Kuria was saying is that the government is aware that GM foods can kill Kenyans but doesn’t really care.
Following the uproar over his thoughtless comments, the CS did not show contrition but took social media broadsides at his critics, whom he dismissed as “rich idlers and Twitterati with a bowl of pizza and fish fingers...attacking our GMO policy while Hustlers are dying of hunger”.
Kuria’s comments perfectly illustrate an individual who has not been able to make the mental leap from a rabble-rousing politician to a Cabinet secretary whose every utterance has to be taken as the enunciation of government policy. But, more seriously, they also indicate a government completely lacking in the institutionalisation of a coherent, disciplined and sober public communications system.
The result is a free-for-all Tower of Babel, where everybody who claims to speak for ‘our government’ has the freedom to liberally vomit. The public will hardly be in a position to distinguish between bilge from a lowly political activist craving President Ruto’s attention or a CS or State House spokesperson voicing the official position.
The importation and cultivation of GM crops, particularly foodstuffs, is a very sensitive issue at the local and global levels. The jury is still out on whether GMOs are safe, particularly if they contribute to lethal diseases. This is an ongoing debate that cannot be settled through roadside policy declarations.
The ban imposed in 2012, during the administration of President Mwai Kibaki, was based on findings and recommendations of specific research indicating that GM foods caused cancer. Some of the findings of those studies have since been the subject of considerable debate.
The Ruto government edict reversing the ban was supposedly informed by findings of a 2014 report by a task force on GM foods. However, the report was never made public then, and, to date, has not been specifically cited by chapter and verse as it supposedly provided justification for the okaying of GM foods.
The least the government could do was make the report available and provide room for open debate before taking such a drastic step.
GM foods are widely grown and sold in the United States, Europe, Asia and many other regions but, as long as there are public concerns over their safety, those fears must be assuaged and not arrogantly dismissed.
Safety aside, there are also valid concerns about the aggression with which Monsanto and other major foreign corporations push their GMO seeds. It is an open secret in Kenya that many of the major agricultural research, policy and regulatory institutions have been held captive to biotechnology multinationals out to promote their products.
Politicians and government officials have also not been left out where there is money to be made, and it is easy to track those who have, over the years, pushed the agenda dictated by those gigantic corporations. In such an environment, it is criminal for the government to suddenly reverse the GMO ban without providing space for open discussion.
It is particularly scary that no guidelines have been issued on how GMO seeds and foods may be imported, grown and sold. The public must also be protected by an identification and labelling system for the benefit of those who want their food free of genetic manipulation.
The uncontrolled entry of GMOs could also prove disastrous for Kenyan maize farmers, placed at great risk of their fields and crops being contaminated by foreign organisms, and finding out when it is too late that they will in future planting seasons be held hostage to the merchants of the new-fangled seeds.
The GMO decision must be reversed until all the related concerns are addressed.
[email protected] www.gaitho.co.ke. @MachariaGaitho