The Open Cultivation of Bt-Maize: Questions We Should Be Asking

In February, Kenya edged closer to commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops after the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) approved open-air field trials of Bt-maize. If the new trials prove successful, it is likely that authorities will allow commercial cultivation, making Kenya the third country in Africa to plant GM crops. Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organsiation (KALRO) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) are running the trials.

While announcing the approval, Willy Tonui, the Chief Executive of the NBA said the decision was meant to prove whether the performance of Bt-maize across the country would correspond with how well it did during the confined trials in Kiboko area, Makueni County. The announcement was welcomed by the powerful pro-GMO lobby as a “milestone” for the development of agricultural biotechnology in Kenya.
However the release was approved before issues related to open cultivation of GM crops in the country were addressed. The move endangers Kenya’s struggling agricultural sector, imperils the environment and contravenes the right of farmers and consumers to select what to grow and eat. A major concern is the threat of exacerbating the vulnerability of small-scale farmers.

Technology ought to support, not replace, natural systems. The attempt to introduce genetically engineered products in Kenya does not consider the potential disruption to socio-economic and cultural conditions. The decision is bound to create difficulty and complicated situations, which advocates have not envisaged. For example, the introduction of GM crops can lead to an uncontrolled, large-scale spread and persistence of the transgenes in any farm in the country. In a study titled, Unintended consequences on plant transformation: A molecular insight, researchers Marcin Filipecky and Stefan Malepszy argue it is impossible to predict the transgenes’ impact on the environments where they are released.

Harping on selective advantages
Those in favour of introducing GM crops for small-scale farmers have been quick to publicise selective advantages. It is argued that the crops are designed to resist pests and are resilient against chemicals that kill weeds. As a result farmers can expect greater harvests and the nation can expect to be food secure. The disadvantages of using GM crops are not made explicit. For example, their cultivation requires greater use of herbicides and over the long-term this leads to pests developing resistance. Additionally, realising food security is not synonymous with agricultural production and increased crop yields. It demands a holistic appraisal of the economic lives of small-scale farmers – their ability to participate in the food value chain and developing national legislation that supports participation. Growing Bt-maize alone cannot guarantee food security and the campaign for its widespread cultivation seems to be built on misleading promises.  

Implications for small-scale farming
Our small-scale farming population are an asset to Kenya. Small-scale farmers, more than 80% of whom are women, dominate farming in the country. According to the Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO), there are over 4.3 million smallholder farms producing 63% of Kenya’s food. Land shortages force farm boundaries to be close together. In many cases small farms (holdings which range in size from 0.86ha to 8.9ha) neighbour each other and larger, commercial farms. Additionally, KALRO’s 16 research institutes – including the Biotechnology and Food Crops research institutes – are not geographically isolated from local people’s farms.

The socio-economic and geographical context primes the country for possible cross-pollination between Bt-maize and non-genetically engineered maize varieties. It is easy to contaminate one variety with traits of another through pollen flow. Biologists highlight that depending on the size and type of plant, pollen can travel between 100m and several kilometres. This is supported by research conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency that found pollen from genetically engineered grass had pollinated organic grass 21km away.  There is a significant likelihood that pollen from Bt-maize will pollinate conventional maize varieties far away from trial areas. Additionally, the NBA will not be able to ensure the legal isolation distance of 100m between fields with Bt-maize and those with conventional varieties given the sheer number and nationwide distribution of small farms. It would therefore be extremely difficult – almost impossible – to ensure co-existence of conventional and GM maize cultivation in the country. The decision to openly cultivate Bt-maize makes it difficult to set up GMO-free zones as proposed by law and puts organic farming at risk. It degrades the diversity of Kenya’s maize gene pool.  It also compromises the ability of small-scale farmers to choose what they grow.

The culture of seed-saving and sharing is a farming practice that has a history in Kenya. Traditionally, thousands of farmers keep and exchange maize varieties with each other after harvesting. The importance of seed-sharing is that, unlike the varieties sold by multinationals, local seeds do not rely on expensive and aggressive chemicals to give farmers adequate food to consume at home and enough to sell at the market. Once contamination takes effect across the country our seed-saving culture will be destroyed. Farmers who once shared seed will need to buy new seeds and compatible fertilisers each season from agrovet shops. The long-term impact on small-scale farmers incomes and wellbeing is open for all to see.

It is debatable whether genetic engineering will meet the needs of poor farmers. The challenge that Bt-maize is supposed to solve is not the main concern for Kenya’s small-scale farming population. The Bt-variety is designed to be insect resistant.  However, some of the most important considerations for farmers who require good harvests are irrigation, inexpensive credit, sound post-harvest management techniques and less costly inputs. Additionally, farmers are concerned about their ability to earn an income by selling their produce so that they are able to further invest in their farms and their families. The key considerations in this regard are access to markets and insurance protection. A transition to genetically modified crops would render small-scale farmers dependent on formal seed markets sourced from dominant multinationals. The move would exacerbate small-scale farmer vulnerability and increase their isolation from the economic environment.  

Implications for consumers
The impending growth of GM maize is likely to interfere with the rights of consumers. It contravenes the provisions of the Kenyan Constitution, which makes it mandatory for producers to provide information to consumers, such as whether food has genetically modified content. Article 46(1b) states that consumers have the right “to information necessary for them to gain full benefit from goods and services,” while 46(1c) gives consumers the right to “protection of their health, safety, and economic interests.” According to the Kenya Law Reform Commission, this article applies to goods and services offered by public or private entities. In the event that there is contamination of maize varieties with GM traits across the country, this will violate constitutional provisions on the right to choice.

Enforcing the constitutional requirement, however, can be challenging. This is because some small-scale maize farmers consume the maize they produce. In the event there is contamination, regulatory authorities might find themselves unable to take measures against a farmer who is also the consumer. Authorities would need to prove that the farmer sold the contaminated maize without providing information about the crop’s GM status, therefore violating the consumer’s constitutional right.

In addition, small-scale farmers might find themselves in a problematic situation if it is proven that they have been cultivating the relevant GM maize without authorisation of the patent holder – in this case, Monsanto Company. This happened in Canada when Monsanto took a farmer to court accusing him of patent infringement, because his canola plants were contaminated with GM varieties owned by the company.

There is no indication that the NBA considered trends in global tastes and preferences as it approved the cultivation of Bt-maize. Millions of people worldwide have become health conscious and are exchanging chemically grown foods for organic alternatives. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic products rose to $39 billion (Ksh3.9 trillion) last year. Europe, where Kenya sells horticulture and other agricultural products, constituted 45% of the global market for organic products. On average, Europeans consume organic foods worth €16 (Ksh1, 793) per person, each week. Baby corn is one of the horticultural crops exported by Kenya to Britain and other EU countries. Should the open-trials of Bt-maize be extended across Kenya, the country will find it almost impossible to develop the organic-crop subsector to capitalise on existing and emerging high-end global markets for organic foods.

Implications for the environment
Farming thrives in a balanced environment where tiny organisms and insects – that are key to plant growth and production – are free to perform their natural mandates. These include insects that enable air to enter into the soil, ground beetles and pirate bugs that feed on harmful pests and others, such as bees and butterflies that aid in pollination. Despite this, Kenyan authorities appear determined to fully introduce Bt-maize without seeing the need to evaluate environmental impacts. There is also the possibility that the inserted gene might cross-pollinate with wild species. This was proven in the British GM Science Review that highlighted how gene flow can occur from GM crops to sexually compatible wild relatives and to agricultural weeds. According to Patricia Kameli-Mbote, Professor of Law at the University of Nairobi, this can lead to what is called ‘genetic pollution’ and the creation of ‘super’ weeds, which would negatively affect ecosystem functions and biodiversity. Loss of biodiversity, and particularly loss of crop diversity, exacerbates the vulnerability of small-scale farmers. As it is, the livelihood of these farmers continues to be negatively affected by weather variability and frequent extreme weather events that are attributed to climate change.

The NBA will not be able to prevent contamination, nor is it able to control intended or unintended effects from taking place. It is difficult to understand how we are going to realise food security, if we do not have an environment that is sufficiently cared for to produce food. We should take cue from how other societies have reacted to elaborate efforts to introduce GMOs and particularly the genetically modified maize – MON 810 – owned by Monsanto. Some countries have banned all GMOs. Some countries have banned only some of them. Whilst others that initially allowed GMO cultivation later rescinded the decision. For example, France approved Monsanto’s MON 810 but later forbid its cultivation in 2008. The ban by the French government was based on environmental concerns, such as the impossibility to prevent the dissemination of GM maize into the environment and the possibility of toxic effects on non-target organisms. Besides France, five other EU member states namely, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland, have banned the commercial growing of the same GM maize variety on the basis of environmental and health concerns.

Exacerbating vulnerability: GMO regulators not up to the task
There is growing evidence that Kenya’s regulating agencies are not up to the task of guaranteeing biosafety in the country. The NBA, Kenya Bureau of Standards and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) are characteristically weak and not fully able to control, test, monitor or instigate remedial measures if negative consequences arise from the impending open cultivation of Bt-maize. Kenya has signed the Cartagena Protocol – an international treaty that regulates the use of GMOs – and has developed regulations, including measures aimed at detecting and monitoring proliferation of GM traits in crops. Despite these initiatives our regulating agencies have illustrated in the past that they do not have the capacity to effectively handle their role, or they have been unwilling to do so.

An example of this became evident in 2007 when farmers and consumers needed to know whether the seed maize imported from South Africa, which were commercialized as ‘pure’ varieties, had GM contamination.  This led to testing by the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition and Greenpeace International. Tests were commissioned for 19 seed varieties bought in stores from key maize producing areas across the country. The tests, conducted by an independent European laboratory called Eurofin Scientific, revealed that Pioneer's seed maize variety - PHB 30V53 – sold in the Eldoret region of Kenya, was contaminated with MON 810 traits. At the same time, it was established that a number of baby foods sold in supermarkets of Nairobi were GMOs.

The findings were proven beyond doubt and the report was made public, but no one was held accountable. Although the incident happened before the NBA was constituted, the Kenya Bureau of Standards and KEPHIS were the existing regulatory bodies and responsible for preventing such occurrences. Another example of ineffectiveness is when Danson Maanzo, a legislator from Makueni, discovered that a food seasoning called Aromat is genetically modified. At the time, the product was sold openly in Kenya’s supermarkets without the requisite consumer information on the packaging. When the NBA withdrew Aromat from the shelves, the manufacturer, Unilever, took the NBA to court. The action was seen as an attempt to pre-empt a sanction that the NBA would have imposed on the company. Interestingly, it later emerged that the two parties silently engaged in an out-of-court settlement.  

The examples illustrate that there is no guarantee that the NBA or any other regulating body will be able to control or monitor the progressive proliferation of the Bt-maize varieties. As a result, Kenyan farmers are at risk of unwittingly growing and eating GM maize and consumers are at risk of unknowingly buying GM maize products.

What should we be asking?
If the ability of Bt-maize to ward off insects is not a major consideration of small-scale farmers and if multiple countries have outlawed the particular MON 810 variety, the question that we should be asking ourselves is; why are KARLO and AATF, as well as the NBA fixated on the commercial cultivation of a maize variety other countries cannot bear to have?

If evidence has shown the equation of food security is complex and that producing more food doesn’t necessarily mean that Kenya’s urban and rural poor won’t suffer from chronic hunger, then for whose interests are open-field trials of Bt-maize catering?

If consumers have been uninformed about their consumption of genetically engineered foods in the past and the authorities that are supposed to protect our right to information fail to do so, we should ask ourselves, do we support or do we disagree with open-field testing and the move towards lifting the ban on producing genetically modified food in Kenya?  

What is your opinion? Join our conversation. Leave your comments below or Tweet with #GMO or #foodsecurity  

Authored by John Mbaria, a Nairobi-based Environment Journalist.