Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) - A Solution to Food Insecurity?

In Kenya it is estimated that over 3.8 million people are chronically malnourished while more than 15 million people are facing transitory hunger due to natural and man-made disasters. Over the years, the government has initiated numerous programs and put in place mechanisms to address hunger and malnutrition with limited success partly because of: lack of relevant policies, lack of coherence in existing policies and programs, corruption, inadequate funding, misplaced priorities among others.

The small holder farmer in rural Kenya is now faced with many challenges; small plots of land, lack of access to proper seeds and inputs, lack of access to credit, market access challenges and now even more serious are the challenges of climate change. The farmers cannot accurately predict when the next rains will come and thus cannot plan their farming calendars. The dependency on maize as a staple crop makes the situation worse as maize is dependent on sufficient rains and synthetic inputs.

Kenya enacted the Biosafety law in the year 2009 and in effect beginning the process of allowing the entry of GMO seeds into the country. It is purported the current GMO products in the market include: Cotton, Maize, Soya and Canola. The GM maize is open pollinated and there is the risk of contamination of local/traditional varieties. Other risks include the possible paralysis of the traditional seed saving culture and eventual exploitation through introduction of patented seeds. Africa and in particular Kenya has a large capacity and means to ensure food security of its population only if proper planning and directing resources towards quality outputs is considered.

Various players have been involved in the campaign for and against GMOs. Coalitions like the Kenya GMO Concern (KEGCO) and the precursor to the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) have carried out campaigns raising awareness on the dangers of GMOs not only in Kenya but in Africa and other countries. The lobby and campaign activities of KEGCO/KBioC led to the delay in the enactment of the Biosafety Bill in Kenya until 2009 when it was enacted after government came under pressure from development agencies to open the door for food aid (GM maize) following a long period of drought.

A group of scientists and agriculture research institutions both national and international ones have been in record calling for speedy lifting of ban on GM foods. In the last two years, there have been heightened pro-GMO activities especially in production of harmonized biosafety laws in East, South and West African countries.

There have been many discussions on print and electronic media regarding the pros and cons of GMOs with regard to the direct consumption of transgenic material as well as on the existing agricultural systems. Even with the successful campaigns and media coverage that we have seen in East Africa, there are still some gaps that need to be addressed.

  • There is still a wide knowledge gap in conceptualisation of the real issues of concern in reputing the GMOs system into Kenya; many groups still hold a lot of misconceptions regarding GMOs.
  • There exists a gap in the ability to identify GMOs through testing. Even the gate keepers on plant and live materials in the country such as KEPHIS and KARI have often claimed not being able to detect presence of GMOs into the country.

The internationally acclaimed Precautionary Principle (PP) requires that action should be taken to prevent damage even if there are still scientific uncertainties about the cause of the harm. Ambiguous as it is, the PP has nevertheless developed into an important aspect of international environmental law.There exist the two paradoxes: “The absence of proof (of harm) is not its proof of absence. Yet the proof of absence of harm is very often impossible”.