President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga have been thrown on different sides of the genetically modified foods debate, having both zealously defended their introduction and use as members of Cabinet in the Grand Coalition Government.
Now, Mr Odinga has asked Parliament and Kenyans to reject President Ruto’s move to lift a 10-year ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and animal feeds as well as their cultivation in the country.
As Deputy President, Dr Ruto, too, had sat in the Cabinet chaired by his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, that had imposed the ban, which the new President rescinded in October following a meeting of the outgoing ministers.
The Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition leader argues that President Ruto’s government was fast-tracking the introduction of the foods, saying the Head of State had shown the traits of a puppet of the West, keen to benefit from the interest of multinationals at the expense of those of local farmers and the country’s interests.
In the Mwai Kibaki government, however, Mr Odinga, then Prime Minister, with Dr Ruto as the Agriculture minister, defended GMOs, asking Kenyans to “respect the science”.
In an assessment of the Hansard report of August 3, 2011, Mr Odinga said that the GMO science had passed the risk assessment and, therefore, was not likely to harm people.
Mr Odinga went on to tell the country that gene technology has been used to improve geneability and the nutritional value of crops, improve crop resistance against diseases, increase crop yields, and generate seeds that mature faster with little rain.
Mr Odinga also indicated that the technology generally reduces the use of herbicides or insecticides in agricultural production.
“The GMO food currently available on the international market have passed risk assessment and are not likely to present this for human health,” Mr Odinga said then while quoting the World Health Organization (WHO) on the safety of GMOs.
He also based his arguments on the Biosafety Act of 2009 which created the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to manage the control of genetically modified organisms and related risks in the country.
The law was enacted by Parliament in December 2008 and received presidential assent on February 12, 2009.
Yesterday, Mr Odinga defended his position on the matter 10 years ago, citing ‘limited information on the matter’ then.
“More than ten years later, new information has emerged, most of it against GMOs, as scientific scrutiny on GMOs has intensified, leading to his change of mind; from supporting GMOs to opposing them. As science has evolved over the last decade, so has Mr Odinga’s thinking on GMOs,” Mr Odinga’s spokesperson, Dennis Onyango, said in a statement last evening.
"Willingness to learn"
He added: “Mr Odinga’s current position on GMOs is, therefore, not a case of doublespeak but a result of a willingness to learn, unlearn and relearn, the essence of literacy in the 21st century.”
During the Prime Minister’s Question Time in Parliament in 2011, Mr Odinga went ahead to announce the decision of the government to import GMO maize.
“The government, informed by the shortage of non-GMO maize on the international market, has authorised the importation of GMO maize during this drought crisis,” Mr Odinga announced as he listed the conditions to be met by the importers.
The conditions included that all importation, marketing, transportation and exportation of any GMO maize be done by registered millers only, and with the written approval of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA).
That all applications for the importation, marketing, transportation and exportation of GMO maize be made by millers to the NBA.
It was also a condition that all quantities of imported GMO maize be handled by registered millers only, and be milled into flour, with none being distributed as seeds.
At the time, Mr Odinga also dismissed claims by then Naivasha MP John Mututho that GMO maize had found its way into the country.
“No miller has actually made an application for a licence to import GMO maize. This is because the necessary biosafety regulations outlining the procedure for importation of GMO food are with the Government Printer, awaiting publication,” he told the House.
Mr Odinga noted that all the maize that has been imported by the millers has been certified GMO-free by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) and inspection agencies such as Intertex.
The former Prime Minister further assured the country that no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in countries where they have been approved.
“Continuous use of risk assessment based on the Codex Principles, and where appropriate, including post-market monitoring, should form the basis of evaluating the safety of GMO foods,” said Mr Odinga.
He went on to tell the country that WHO lists maize, soya bean, squash, potato, oil seeds and chicory as GMO crops currently on the international market.
“These crops are traded in Argentina, Canada, the Republic of South Africa, the United States of America, and in some European Union (EU) countries,” he said as he tabled in the House the WHO answers to 20 questions frequently asked on GMO foods.
Mr Odinga went on to assure the country that “these countries are fairly advanced that will not allow their own population to consume GMO foods if it is harmful.”
Unlike Mr Odinga who has changed positions on the debate surrounding the safety of GMOs, Dr Ruto has maintained his stance to date as captured in his contributions in the House.
On December 2, 2008, while contributing to debate on the Biosafety Bill in the National Assembly, Dr Ruto, then Agriculture minister, said Kenya is lagging behind in putting a legal framework in place to facilitate faster and coordinated research activities ‘in the various arms of agriculture and GMO-related fields’.
“Many controversial things have been said about GMOs. But I want to assure this House that our research institutions have men and women who know what is good for our country. We have developed such a wealth of researchers, information and personnel that can help us steer this country towards the safe use of GMOs,” Dr Ruto assured the country.
He then asked the House to reject the interests of anti-GMO activists that, he said, were pursuing their own agenda, including buying newspaper space to discredit such foods.
“It is important that we recognise that our universities and research institutions have developed the capacity to provide a safe, well-co-ordinated research framework that will enable us to get better varieties of what we want to achieve in terms of food security for our country. Eighteen per cent of our country is arable land under rain-fed agriculture. We can only expand so much of that land and bring it under agricultural activities. For us to develop varieties that are drought-resistant, use less water, have a higher yield and are disease-resistant, we need this Biosafety Bill to give us the framework for us to engage research and science so that we can better the lives of mankind,” Dr Ruto said in the December 2008 debate.