The debate over the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has polarized Kenyans from all walks of life and threatens huge investments in scientific research to re-invent food production in the country.
While a growing body of scientific research hails the potential of genetic engineering to revolutionize food production, an equally large population of skeptics from the Kenyan green movement warns of its potential dangers.
Scientists, policymakers and green activists who attended a public forum on Thursday evening were sharply divided over introduction of genetically modified organisms.
Richard Oduor, Chairman of Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium, said condemnation of genetically modified organisms is not based on science but unjustified paranoia.
The head of biotechnology department at Kenyatta University said Kenya has invested heavily in scientific research, infrastructure and personnel to facilitate the adoption of biotech crops.
“Science is clear that as a country, we cannot afford to employ old methods to produce food and meet huge demands from a growing population. No country has ever become food secure through traditional farming systems,” Oduor told campaigners.
Kenyan scientists have been lobbying the government to lift a ban on GMOs. Oduor said the ban was not based on scientific evidence and has jeopardized huge investments in research on improved crop varieties.
“The government and development partners have invested billions of dollars to undertake confined field trials on improved maize, cotton, sorghum and potato varieties. Such efforts should not be in vain,” Oduor said.
Kenya has established an independent agency to regulate GMOs and enhance their safety to humans and the environment.
Oduor noted the enactment of biosafety act in 2009 has strengthened Kenya’s capacity to respond to potential dangers of biotech crops.
“Research is still ongoing to address safety and efficacy concerns on GMOs. We need a somber dialogue to minimize controversies surrounding genetic engineering,” said Oduor, adding that Kenya risks becoming a perpetually food aid dependent nation unless the government fast-tracks the adoption of biotech crops.
Marion Mutugi, a Lecturer at Kabianga University, cautioned against introduction of biotech crops based on their potential threats to human health and indigenous biodiversity.
Mutugi was a member of a taskforce appointed by the Cabinet Secretary for Health to review the capacity of Kenya’s regulatory and policy environment to facilitate smooth adoption of GMOs.
The taskforce’s recommendation presented to the health minister in April this year will be discussed by the cabinet and will help inform lifting of the GMO ban.
Mutugi is among a large pool of Kenyan scientists opposed to genetically modified organisms. During her presentation at the public forum, Mutugi said Kenya is not yet ready for large scale adoption of biotech crops based on the fragile regulatory environment.
“We need to address fundamental issues like food sovereignty, protection of natural capital and indigenous knowledge before adopting genetic engineering in agriculture,” Mutugi said.
Kenya is among dozens of countries globally that have put a brake on the journey towards adoption of biotech crops.
Mutugi said that even countries that have commercialized GMOs have maintained some caveats to ensure citizens are protected from unknown risks.
“There are moral, ethical and health concerns that should not be ignored. Scientists, regulators, industry and consumer groups should address those concerns,” said Mutugi.
The Kenyan green movement has conducted nationwide campaign against the introduction of genetically modified organisms.
Wanjiru Kamau, an official at Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN), warned that agriculture biotechnology threatens Kenya’s genetic diversity and food sovereignty.
“We require a precautionary approach to avert potential risks of biotech crops to our rich biodiversity. Smallholders will be at the mercy of multinational giants pushing for adoption of GMOs,” Wanjiru said.
This story was originally published on Coastweek.com.