By Mercy Ambani*
The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in four decades. Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority estimates that 4.35 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Climate change has seen the country graduate from facing drought every seven years to the weather becoming unpredictable thus affecting food production in the country.
In October 2022, a decade later, Kenya’s cabinet revised the moratorium on Genetically Modified crops and seeds, paving the way for the importation and production of GMO food and seeds. The government has defended this position as being necessitated by the pressure to provide food security not just to the Kenyans living in the 23 arid and semi- arid counties, but to also cushion the more than nine hundred thousand children who are acutely malnourished.
The communique from the government is that Kenya is adopting emerging and new alternatives to farming that will ensure early maturity and more production of food to cushion millions of Kenyans from perennial famine.
The journey towards legalizing Bio-technology in Kenya began with the enactment of the Biosafety Act of 2009 which would see Kenya explore bio-technology in the growing of cotton, cassava and maize. This is a year after President William Ruto, then Minister for Agriculture, had expressed his desire to see African countries enrolled into the global bio-economy through policy and regulatory frameworks development for the application of bio-technology. President Ruto made these remarks at the 2008 All African Congress on Bio-technology.
In 2012, when the cabinet banned the commercialization of BT Cotton as well as GMO crops, it was based on the study by French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini which concluded that rats fed by Genetically modified maize developed cancerous tumors. Anti-GMO activists have often referred to this report while pushing for the ban on GMOs due to the unknown impact of the modification on other organisms.
This did not stop the commercialization of BT Cotton in the country in 2019 to counter the incessant bollworm pests and improve yields to farmers. Kenyan cotton farmers have since lauded this cotton variety and are reporting on much higher yields. This celebration may by premature following India’s experience with BT Cotton when the bollworm developed resistance to the GMO seed and a lot farmers suffered massive losses.
In Africa, the number of countries that have since commercialized GMO crops has risen from 3 in 2016 to 10 by 2022. South Africa taking the lead and has been growing GMO crops for the last 25 years. Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana and eSwatini have also joined the bandwagon and have commercialized the growing of GMO crops. The crops being grown in these countries include GM Cotton tolerant to African bollworm, GM Cassava resistant to brown streak disease and GM maize resistant to stem borer.
Seed Savers Network believes that the Kenyan government decision to lift the ban on GMO food and crops is a rushed decision and a threat to the farmer’s right to own seed. Farmers also have a right to choose which food to grow in the different micro-climatic zones. This is a discriminatory policy to small holder farmers who produce 80 percent of the food grown in the country. The push to commercialize GMO seeds could be a short-term solution to the food insecurity being experienced in the country but in the long-term it will do more harm than good especially in the interest of protecting food diversity and sovereignty.
While alive to the current drought being experienced in parts of the country, we question the quickness with which President William Ruto lifted the ban on GMO food and crops. This was a decision made under intense pressure especially from multi-national corporations like ADM, Bayer, Cargill, Corveta, Deere, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, OCP North America and Syngenta, who immediately applauded the lifting of the ban. These companies are members of the US Grains Council and for quite a while the United States government has aggressively lobbied for the Kenya Government to buy its genetically modified maize as animal feed.
We see this through the US Trade Representative (USTR) and the US Grain Council (USGC) in pushing the GMO agenda in Kenya. USTR is on record saying that the ban on GMO in Kenya restricted the sales of companies DowDupoint and Monsanto who have been seeking new markets in Kenya. The war in Russia and Ukraine, Kenya’s source of cheap animal feed also catalyzing an already dire situation in the country with the Association of Kenya Feed Manufacturers (AKEFEMA) collaborating USGC for the production poultry and animal feeds whose prices have gone up affecting the production of meat, poultry and dairy products.
Our work at Seed Savers Network has shown us that Kenya can sustainably feed itself without the malicious intervention of foreign organizations that have succeeded in promoting GM crops here. The problem with our food chain at the moment is distribution. During this drought we have seen smallholder farmers in high production areas throw away food due to lack of markets; quite an unfortunate paradox. Our food insecurity is as a result of climate change and, therefore, we should look at Agro-ecological ways of adapting to this.
This new order of events will decimate the indigenous crop varieties by promoting monoculture. This is an attack also to indigenous knowledge since the GMO seeds are usually regulated by patents and intellectual property rights exposing the smallholder famer to a litany of expensive and unnecessary legal suits should they be found growing crop ‘similar’ to the patented seeds.
William Engdhal in his book , Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation believes that by controlling the food grown, one can control the people since GMO technology will destroy indigenous knowledge and obliterate the farmers right to own seed. We want farmers access to diverse and ecologically adapted seeds to be protected. The Kenya government should ensure there are regulations to prevent exclusive rights on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture by the multi-national companies seeking to sell GMO seeds locally.
Genetically modified seeds are not ecologically adapted in the micro climate zones and the soils. The impact of lifting the ban on GMO products will lead to erosion of diverse species as cross pollination with indigenous crop species will alter the genetic makeup of wild crop varieties. There is also the overuse of herbicides due to mutation in weeds giving rise to the Super weeds. Prolonged use of herbicides is not only harmful to the environment but the glyphosate in them has been linked with cancer in the long term.
Mainstream Agriculture has not favored the smallholder farmer, we see this through policies that have prioritized the commercialization of seed production and ownership. As a network we have continued to empower smallholder farmers to own and protect the indigenous seed. The lifting of the ban means at some point, soon, indigenous seed farmers who will be forced to buy expensive seeds. In the face of a rapidly worsening climate crisis, smallholder farmers need seeds that are resilient to changing and unpredictable weather conditions. This curated GM seed environment, means local varieties do not stand a chance yet indigenous seeds have overtime proven their natural adaptability to the environment.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, farmer-managed seed systems provide the majority of food consumed at the household level. Smallholder farmers play a considerable role in keeping themselves and their communities food secure by growing, breeding, and fostering farmer varieties “underutilized varieties”. This in essence is preserving the country’s agricultural biodiversity.
Two decades since the commercialization of GMO crops across the world we believe that the Kenya government should comply with the international and local Biosafety regulations that will address environmental, and food safety concerns. This means investment by the national and county governments to have extension officers to monitor and evaluate the GMO crops post-release.
We appreciate that the High Court in November, stopped the entry of GM maize in the country and we join other interested parties in calling for more dialogue and engagements to ensure that indigenous sustainable agriculture is allowed to thrive.
In January 2023 the Kenya Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture held a consultative meeting with stakeholders to discuss the impact of the lifting of the ban. Among those invited were Professors from five public universities where Biotechnology research is being conducted. Anti-GMO lobby groups were also granted an opportunity to share their views. We gladly note that there was a unanimous feeling that GMO is not a silver bullet to solving the challenge of food insecurity. We are continually advocating for more public participation to involve farmers and members of the public in the counties even as we await the Court of appeal’s ruling on the National Biosafety Authority’s contest of the current stay on importation of GMO maize. Seed Savers Network will continue to protect the farmers right to own seed and provide local solutions to food security by promoting Agroecology.
*The author, Mercy Ambani, is a Program officer at Seed Savers Network Kenya with a passion to work with smallholder farmers, conduct field trainings, to impact on livelihoods and generally cause a change in her society.