GENET archive


9-Misc: GE debate in Africa (3)

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TITLE:  GM foods: Kenya inherits a new baggage of prejudices
SOURCE: East African Standard / Financial Standard, Kenya, by Benson Kathuri
DATE:   6 Jul 2004

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GM foods: Kenya inherits a new baggage of prejudices

Kenya's recent acceptance of genetically modified crops (GM) is likely to
plunge the country into the on going global controversy over the issue
and risk losing the lucrative European Union market.

The decision by the Ministry of Agriculture to embrace GM crops backed by
President Mwai Kibaki will undoubtedly feature prominently in the going
economic partnership agreements (EPAs) talks.

The move pits the Kenya at an awkward negotiating position with both the
Americans and the European Union. While the Americans embrace the GM
foods wholly--and they have already rewarded Kenya by extending the
deadline of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)--the EU is
skeptical and it is also Kenya's largest trading partner after Africa.

Kenya is currently negotiating for a new trade arrangement with the EU to
replace the existing one agreed under the EU-ACP Cotonou convention.

"The European Union which is a key market for Kenya's agricultural
exports and mainly flowers may decide use the decision as a ground to
deny us market access", says a senior ministry of trade official.

However, the Ministry of Agriculture argues that the aim of adopting
biotechnology in agriculture is to boost food production and hence food

Currently, Kenya is regarded as a food deficient country that depends
heavily on food imports especially rice and wheat whose production can be
boosted by the technology.

Already, the country has experimented successfully on bananas and many
observers believe the same can be extended to the two crops and perhaps
maize and cotton.

"I think we do not need to be dictated by the whims of international
bodies when we have a felt need", says John Kiama,

 Kiama, a Kiambu coffee farmer says local farmers have suffered from
imbalances of international trade arrangements and if they can boost crop
production, market issues can be handled later.

However, the country stands to loose billions of shillings and the entire
horticultural sector would collapse if the country were barred from
exporting to the world largest trade block.

The European Union which five years ago suffered massive losses following
the outbreak of mad cow disease has waged a global campaign to block the
adoption of commercial GM crop farming.

The controversy, which has pitted the EU trading block against the United
States, the world largest promoter of genetically modified crops has
spread across the globe and Africa has not been spared either.

At the height of a devastating famine in southern African countries last
year, countries led by Malawi and Zambia declined to receive food aid
from the US because the maize grain was GM modified.

At one point, the governments of these countries demanded that any GM
grains brought into the countries must be milled to ensure no grains that
could germinate landed there.

Currently, Sudan and Angola are engaged in war of words with the World
Food Programme (WFP) over food aid that consists of GM grains.

The two countries like their counterparts in southern Africa argue that
safety and environmental issues of the GM foods have not be exhaustively
discussed and agreed upon.

Africa including, Kenya will find itself on a tight spot because it
relies entirely on food assistance from WFP whose biggest food donor is
the US, which promotes GM crops, while most of Africa exports are to the EU.

"The most important component of non-trade barriers faced by African
exporters to the EU is made up of technical standards, sanitary and
phytosanitary (SPS) measures", argues Ademola Oyejide, an economic policy
researcher with the African Economic Research Consortium. He says that
the measures have become increasingly complex, change frequently and are
generally developed with little involvement of African countries.

In pushing for a GM crops policy, the government want to cater for food
needs, but analysts feel that it should seek views from exporters and
other stakeholders who have faced numerous problems with non-tariff
barriers while exporting to the EU.

European fears over the introduction of GM crops and foods have been
widely ascribed to a generalized lack of confidence in science and
regulatory systems, largely as a result of food safety crisis such as Mad
Cow disease that caused havoc in the region five years ago.

Such fears have been expressed locally over the capacity of Kenya to
handle GM crops technology especially on a commercial basis though the
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) has done research on it for
years now.

"Biotechnology genetic engineering holds the considerable promise in
solving Africa's food production problems", says Ensebius Mukwana.

Mukwana, the director Sacred Africa, which is an international non-
governmental organisation that operates in Kenya, says new technology
must be accessible to the poor who are mainly peasant farmers in Africa.

However, the government's change of heart to embrace GM technology and to
promote it on commercial basis is suspicious considering that only a few
years ago, it remained low keyed.

During this year's international day for biological diversity celebrated
last May, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) said
Kenya did not handle GM foods on a large scale.

"Although no GM crops have been commercialized in Kenya, several
consignments of grains and seeds are frequently imported into the country
as relief food", says KEPHIS in a statement.

The safeguard body said it was working with other government agencies to
prevent inadvertent introduction of GM products into Kenya through other

"KEPHIS has just launched an initiative that seeks to build capacity in
detection and surveillance for GMOs at points of entry", it said.

Though KEPHIS' management is quick to say that Kenya is not anti-GM, but
rather keen to keep track on what comes and the safety and trade
implications of such developments, the country will have few friends in
the region.

KEPHIS however says that the country should not be vilified for its
stated position because since the 1990s, advancement in modern
biotechnology the world over has proceeded at an unprecedented pace.

From a paltry 1.7 million hectares of area under transgenic crops in
1996, this has risen to an impressive 58.2 million hectares in 2002.

"Indeed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are gaining in economic
importance so much that the revenue from GM crops alone stood at about
USD 2.3 billion (Sh184 billion) in 2000", says KEPHIS.

However, as the acreage increased so was controversy surrounding the
technology with safety issues defying all attempts to resolve the controversy.

"While there is widespread agreement among scientists that GM products
are safe to eat, some nascent opposition to GMOs has also taken root

They include fears that biotechnology is a high-tech, high-capital
venture that would not serve to improve the welfare and well being of
smallholder farmers. Others argue that biotechnology is a profit-driven
venture pushed by multinational corporations of the west without any
bearing on food security problems in developing countries.

In addition, anxiety persists in many parts of the world regarding the
safety of genetically modified organism when freely released to the

Many oppositionists argue that since the modified crops generated
poisonous substances that keeps the pests in control, the same chemicals
can be poisonous to human, animals or other crops.

Alternatively, should the pests invest such crops; they become resistant
to any controlling pesticide and as result produce a 'superweed' that
cannot be controlled.

Before the government publicly declared the intention to go commercial
with GMOs, it remained an experiment strictly confined and regulated in
the laboratories at KARI. "The GM crops in the country are currently only
being evaluated under contained or confined facilities (safe in-door
environment)", says KEPHI.

The body following application and endorsement by the National Biosafety
Committee (NBC) under the National council for Science and Technology
(NCST) has certified KARI Biotechnology Biosafety level 11 laboratory for
evaluation s of Bt maize leaves for resistance to the stem borer.

So far, KEPHIS has only approved trials at KARI on sweet potatoes that
have been genetically modified to resist the sweet potato featherly
mottle virus


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