The lifting of a ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) by Kenya’s new government barely a month after president William Ruto was sworn in is causing jitters, with politicians, and pressure groups clashing with biotech scientists over safety.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga is opposing the move by cabinet, which opens the doors for GMO maize, cassava, and potatoes, claiming GMO food products pose a health risk to Kenyans. He called it “rubbish.”
“You can’t chest thump that you’re bringing GMO in the country when other developed countries have banned it. We can’t allow you to play with the lives of Kenyans,” Odinga criticized Ruto on Oct. 11 while urging county governments to prohibit the sale of GMOs in rural Kenya.
GMOs are igniting a heated debate in Kenya
On Oct. 13, Odinga’s lawyer Paul Mwangi filed a petition against the removal of the 10-year ban on GMOs, saying it was unconstitutional, a threat to food security in the country, and “goes against the right to food of acceptable quality, consumer rights guaranteed by Article 43.”
Kalonzo Musyoka, another opposition leader, claimed the government’s endorsement of GMOs means the fate of the country’s food security will be in the hands of multinationals which own GMO technologies.
“Our unique biodiversity will be facing extinction owing to the poor regulatory framework on GMOs in Kenya. Kenya fails to provide mechanisms for liability and redress in the event of possible harmful effects arising from the consumption and use of GMOs or compensation for our farmers in case of contamination of indigenous crops,” Musyoka said. He faulted Ruto’s administration for failing to engage the public before lifting the ban.
But professor of biotechnology at Kenyatta University and chair of Kenya Universities Biotech Consortium Richard Oduor tells Quartz that the GMO topic is being trivialized and “those linking it to cancer are jokers because genetic modification does not entail chemical modification.”
Calling it a technology that allows citizens living in Kenya’s 23 arid and semi arid counties to build resilience against hunger and climate change, Oduor explains that what is usually modified in GMO is the DNA of an organism and not its chemical components.
“Why are they not talking about GMO insulin which is used to control diabetes? We are even moving into genome editing to remove bad genes in crops. For instance, we are developing GMO cassava to erase cyanide [which naturally occurs in raw cassava],” Oduor says. Kenya has four labs for researching on GMO crops.
However, national coordinator of the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya Ann Maina tells Quartz that the ban should be reinstated because food consumers are unaware of the toxicity of the types of herbicides used in the cultivation of GMO maize.
“Some conditions under which GMO crops are grown require the use of particular herbicides and pesticides which can be carcinogenic,” she says. “We urge the government to invest in research not funded by multinationals aiming to promote their products.”
Over 10 civil society organizations want the government to restore the ban and look for alternative solutions to the challenges of food security in the country.
The genesis of Kenya’s GMO conundrum
A controversial 2012 study published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology in France found out that female rats fed with GMO maize resistant to the Roundup herbicide developed fatal mammary tumors and pituitary disorders while males suffered liver damage, developed kidney and skin tumors and had problems with their digestive system. Kenya’s 2012 GMO ban was based on these findings.
The survey, led by Gilles-Eric Séralini, a biotech researcher at the University of Caen claimed the herbicide contained glyphosate which the the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), concluded is “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. But in 2016, a panel of United Nations and WHO experts clarified that glyphosate “is unlikely” to cause cancer at realistic exposure levels.
Six French scientific academies issued a statement questioning the credibility of Seralini’s research saying it “could not reverse previous conclusions that this and other GM crops are safe, because of problems with the experimental design, statistical analysis and animals used, and inadequate data.” The European Food Safety Authority declared the study “of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment”.
Kenya’s lifting of the ban is based on this plus the fact that 10 other African countries have commercialized the farming of GMO crops. They are South Africa, Eswatini, Malawi, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mozambique, and Uganda. But GMOs remain banned in Tanzania, Algeria, and Madagascar.
In 2018, hundreds of protestors marched in the streets of Buenos Aires, Hamburg, and Paris to demonstrate against GMO seeds and the manufacture of toxic pesticides by corporate agrochemical giants Monsanto, Bayer, and Syngenta.
Over half of Kenyans don’t want to eat GMOs
A study by the Nature Food journal found that GM maize improved yields by 8% on average while among GMO cotton-producing households, it reduced food insecurity by 15–20%.
A survey conducted last December by Route to Food, a Nairobi-based food security pressure group, found that 57% of Kenyans are not willing to consume genetically modified food. But 14.5 million Kenyans face food insecurity and poor nutrition each year.
In a recent Twitter Spaces discourse, the question of how secondary food consumers can identify if pigs, cows, or chickens have been fed GMO feed sparked a heated debate with many consumers worried that the reintroduction of GMO food products takes away their right to choose the food they ingest.
“It is not possible to label something that cannot be proved to be there. Our regulations have not gone that far to say that if a pig has been fed GM maize, the pork is to be labelled,” biosafety officer at the National Biosafety Authority Anne Muia said.