Build capacity to regulate GM technology

Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) has already given the green light for open field trials of the of Genetically Modified Bt Maize. The decision is likely to have far reaching consequences on consumers and the future of small-scale farmers in the country. No other debate has polarised agricultural stakeholders in the country the way the GMO debate has, and with good reason. For one, the stakes are very high from whatever side one sits on this debate.

For the proponents, GMOs could supposedly unlock the potential for the country to be self-sufficient in food production through the introduction of new seed varieties. These varieties are said to be  resistant to diseases and pests, use limited amounts of water to grow and therefore enable Kenya to produce food in arid and semi-arid areas of the country while making it possible for farmers to produce food even during the frequent drought that often threaten the country’s food security. But the real reason for the fight to have GMOs in Kenya is to allow multinational GMO companies to control the seed industry in the country and in Africa in particular.

The opponents have raised the red flag over GMOs citing concerns regarding safety of GMO food and their long term effects to human, animal and environmental health. To start with, some of the varieties like the Bt maize (a prototype of MON 810 Bt maize variety) has been rejected in developed countries like the Germany, Russia, Ireland amongst others).

There has been concerns on why the same multinationals companies want to introduce GMOs technologies that have been rejected in the most developed countries which have better facilities for testing the safety of GMO Materials.

Kenya and many targeted countries in Africa have knowingly or unknowingly given way to full scale introduction GMO that will eventually dominate the seed industry in the continent; heading into a situation where countries can no longer have any control on prices of seeds since this will be determined by the multinationals, the dangers of  GMOs on human, animal and the environment notwithstanding.

If the problems encountered in the country is anything to go by, introduction of GMOs into our small-scale farming is poised to be a real disaster. In Kenya resource poor farmers are used to recycling. What systems will be put in place to ensure they cannot do the same with GMO seeds? GMO seeds will have not only be expensive, but they are protected under the intellectual property rights which means that farmers will have to pay royalties to the companies that own the seeds.

Large scale farmers in US and Canada have been exposed to litigation due to cross contamination of open pollinated crops like maize and canola (rape seed) due to infringement of intellectual property rights common in biotech crops. This begs the question, is it rational to introduce these crops under our smallholder farming system?

Whenever there is heated debate such as is the case with GMOs, it is possible for objectivity and rationale to be sacrificed at the altar of personal interests. In such an environment, it is crucial to have a referee, often the regulator that is balanced as well as competent. Consequently, it is very important that regulatory authorities put in place strong mechanisms and safeguards that will protect Kenyans from risks associated with these products being peddled by biotech multinationals.

In Kenya, this role falls under the purview of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) whose role should be to regulate, educate and inform Kenyans who would then be able to make an informed choice. Unfortunately, many stakeholders have accused the authority of playing more of a Promoter role than a Regulatory one. Although the NBA has given conditions before the introduction field trials!

Many governments in the developed world have taken precautions in endorsing GMOs or even rejected them altogether based on their strong regulatory mechanisms. Others have imposed moratoria on their development pending further research to ascertain their safety. To understand the seriousness with which these governments take the issue of GMOs, we need to look at how their regulatory bodies work. In Europe for example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is the body mandated to carry out risk assessment of GMOs. Each of the EU member states relies on the findings of the EFSA to make decisions on whether or not to allow any GMO product in their countries.

When a company sends an application for introduction of a GMO product, the application is given a thorough review by the EFSA GMO panel that consists of 21 independent scientific experts. The panel approaches the risk assessment on a case-by case basis. In the assessment, there is no presumption of safety for any GMO product as each is unique and must be assessed individually to ensure that it poses no risk to humans, animals and the environment.

To ensure any conflict of interest is captured, the panel members are expected to sign a mandatory Declaration of Commitment of Independence and Declaration of Interest (DOI) which are made annually. Each of the scientists in the GMO panel is required at each meeting, to declare any interests which might be considered prejudicial to their independence in relation to the items on the agenda.

These provisions are put in place to maintain public confidence, integrity and transparency on the part of the members of the panel. In Kenya, the scientists who undertake GMO trials are paid by the same companies that want to introduce GMOs. Indeed most research on GMOs even in our local universities and research institutions is paid for by the same biotech multinationals. This is a serious conflict of interest, which does not inspire any confidence from the public.

Another hurdle that Kenyan regulatory authorities may grapple with is in the processing and administration of permits. For example, in South Africa, authorities granted about 1500 permits for import, export, commodity clearance and general from January 2008 to October 2012.  This entails administration, scientific review and decision-making, public awareness and participation, permits and farmer enforcement. This not only requires enormous financial resources, but also independent scientific human resources. In the case of South Africa, it resulted in a backlog of applications with possible impacts on good decision- making.

A cursory look at the food safety articles in our print and electronic media particularly with respect to agrochemicals and other environmental pollutants will quickly inform Kenyans that regulators are not in control of the situation. In case of the Bt maize that is about to be released for open cultivation, one would wish to ask a simple question: What independent assessments or tests have been done to show that the Bt maize is safe for human consumption.

The little knowledge I have shows that there are more beneficial bacteria in the human gut that help in food digestion than in any other part of the human body. What independent assessments or tests have been done to show that the Bt toxins in the new GM maize will not kill the gut flora in consumers of that maize? Indeed, it is not surprising that the development of GM Bt maize has been rejected in all the European Union counties since it could not pass the stringent risk assessment tests done there. Food safety concerns could spiral out of control when biotech foods are added to our menus. At the moment, it is clear that the country has no capacity to evaluate the safety of GMOs and give independent and reliable data.

From a socio-economic point of view, GMOs have become a multi-billion business where multinational companies and NGOs supported by Western government are fighting for geopolitical control of human food. Africa is a big target of this effort due to its food security problems.  Is Kenya with its permissive position of this technology playing right into the hands of multinational corporations?

Unfortunately in this country, individual and commercial interests have been allowed to override basic scientific reasoning.

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