The myths and facts about GMOs as Kenya lifts 10-year ban


A maize plantation in Siaya County. Kenya has approved the cultivation of genetically modified, lifting a 10-year ban on biotechnology foods in the country.

Photo credit: File

Kenya approved the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops on Monday, lifting a 10-year ban on biotechnology foods in the country.

The new government is hoping the move will help address the current high cost of food in the country, which pushed inflation to a 63-month high in September.

The decision is also a major win for local scientists who have in the past 12 years been developing genetically modified seeds under confined field trials. But it is set to put the Ruto administration up against the anti-GMO campaigners.

What are GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are those whose genetic makeup has been altered for a particular purpose or use, giving them the ability to withstand certain stress that researchers want to address.

For instance, the GMO maize variety that the scientists in Kenya have been researching can tolerate drought and insect stress.

GMO crops were first approved for human consumption in the United States in 1994, and by 2014/2015, about 90 percent of maize, cotton, and soybeans planted in America were genetically modified.

By the end of 2014, GMO crops covered nearly 1.8 million square kilometres of land in more than 24 countries worldwide.

Who owns the technology?

The GMO technology is solely owned by the Germany-based conglomerate Bayer, which acquired the US giant Monsanto in 2018, which had patented the technology previously.

Why GMOs?

GMOs have been touted to improve farmers’ yields and with the vagaries of weather, occasioned by climate change, scientists argue that these varieties can withstand harsh climatic conditions and allow growers to at least have a percentage of their crop in the worst of the years.

Scientists argue that the GMO maize variety that has been developed in Kenya has a 40 percent yield advantage when compared with the conventional hybrid that is grown locally.

The cost element

According to researchers, it is cheaper to produce GMO maize than conventional varieties. This is because GMOs eliminate the need for costly chemicals to control pests and diseases.

The low cost of production makes GMO maize cheaper in the world market when compared with the white conventional one.

Are GMOs safe for human consumption? Do they cause cancer?

A discredited report in a journal in 2012 claimed that rats that had been fed on GMOs developed a cancerous tumour. It was on this basis that the Kenyan government placed a ban on GMOs.

Scientists have dismissed the claims that GMOs cause cancer and instead argued that they can help in fighting this terminal illness given the fact that they can fight aflatoxin on grain, which is one of the major causes of cancer in Kenya.

Are there any known side effects of GMOs?

GMOs have been approved by agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration of the US, the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

There has been no known scientific study that has published the side effects of consuming GMOs.

GMO journey in Kenya

GM maize testing in Kenya started in 2010 but approval for the environmental release was granted by the National Biosafety Authority in 2016, with scientists only allowed to grow this variety in confined fields.

The scientists completed research last year and the material has been awaiting approval by the Cabinet before it is released for commercial farming.

Are there GMOs in Kenya currently?

At the moment, there are no GMO foods in the Kenyan market. The few genetically modified materials in the country are only meant for study and are protected at the research institutes under the watchful eye of the National Biosafety Authority — the sector regulator.

However, the Cabinet in 2019 approved the commercialisation of genetically modified cotton to boost the textile industry in the country and create employment under the previous government’s Big Four Agenda initiative.

Who will benefit from the lifting of the GMOs ban in Kenya?

Millers have over the years urged the government to lift the ban on GMO imports to boost the local grain stocks. Traders dealing in grain imports and firms that make seeds will be the other big winners.