GENET archive


9-Misc: On the GE discussion in Kenya

                                  PART I
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Should genetically modified food be labelled?
SOURCE: The Standard - Big Issue, Kenya
DATE:   19 Sep 2005

------------------ archive: ------------------

Should genetically modified food be labelled?

Genetically modified maize may be safe to eat, but consumer rights
organisations say it should be labelled as such for consumers. Dann Okoth

Kenyans could be eating genetically modified foods and not know it.
According to a local consumer rights organisation, relief food
consignments and some imported cereal products often consist of gene-
altered foodstuffs. They are, however, not labelled as such.

Consumer Information Network (CIN) Executive Officer, Samwel Ochieng,
says his organisation has raised this issue before and is concerned about
the influx of GM foodstuffs "in a regulatory vacuum". He cites an
incident in 2000 when they were alerted by an environmental organisation
in Malawi to a GM relief food shipment destined for Kenya.

"Friends of the Earth (which is known to run anti-GM campaigns) alerted
us that a consignment of GM maize was headed this way," he says. "We
seized the opportunity to address the issue. Our main aim was to find out
if there was a requirement to label the maize. We approached the United
States embassy (since the consignment originated from the US) and they
told us there was no law requiring them to label the consignment."

Most GM food is being grown in the United States and Argentina, and -- to
a smaller extent -- in Canada and China.

These four countries produce about 99 per cent of the world's GM food.
Kenya is currently experimenting with transgenic maize. As most of the
maize grown in the US is genetically modified, it is not unusual for it
to form part of relief consignments.

A US Embassy official last week said that humanitarian aid consignments
with GM maize are safe to eat and are unlikely to be diverted for
planting. Kevin Smith, head of the agriculture section at the Embassy
said his government takes the issue of food relief to Kenya seriously.

"Relief consignments (are) usually meant for consumption and there is
absolutely no question of feeding programmes being diverted," Smith said.
"We have put in place stringent measures to ensure this does not happen."

He adds that the US government does not consider labelling practical or
necessary, even though "almost 90 per cent of grain produced in the US is
transgenic, with GM yellow maize being the most cultivated".

"It is a tedious and expensive affair to label and segregate products,"
he says. "The US government only exports products that have been
certified as safe for health and the environment."

Such consignments are clearly needed, but Ochieng says that there are
major issues that cannot be ignored in considering whether or not to
accept biotechnology products. He says the Government should review these
issues and then create laws to control the importation and use of such
products in the country.

Given the absence of laws, he says "supermarket chains could be another
major channel (for unlabelled GM foodstuffs), especially due to their
trade links with South Africa and Egypt who have fully embraced
agricultural biotechnology". South Africa, for example, has 400,000
hectares under GM maize, soybean and cotton. Particularly strong growth
has been seen in the area under white maize, which grew 14-fold to 84,000
hectares between 2001 and 2003.

A source at one of the supermarket chains confirmed the possibility of GM
imports to The Big Issue last week, saying: "We import many things from
Egypt and South Africa, ranging from breakfast cereals, to fruits and
furniture." The supplies manager with the same chain said he knew nothing
about GM products, as he was not required to look into the production
technology of imported foodstuffs.

While CIN offers no evidence to show that supermarkets are importing
unlabelled GM products, they are right to say that they might have,
because the law does not prevent it and nobody is looking out for it. The
Kenya Bureau of Standards --- the country's watchdog on the quality of
consumer products -- admits it cannot stop the importation of GM food
products even if it knew about it.

"We would only vet the imports if there was a law requiring us to do so,"
says Engineer John Masila, the KBS Managing Director. "We only act on
existing regulations. Otherwise, what would we be implementing?"

Moreover, in the absence of such laws, importers are not obliged to label
human food containing GM products. This denies Kenyan consumers the
opportunity to choose whether to eat the controversial products or not.

"If there were regulatory mechanisms", Eng Masila continues, "they would
ensure that the products have passed health and safety tests and there
would be no need to test them as they are brought into the country in the
first place."

The CIN's concern with labelling is interesting, though, as it doesn't
address the larger objections they seem to have with the use of GM food -
-- potential health and environmental implications. "There have not been
comprehensive health and environmental risk assessment tests done in
Kenya," Ochieng says. But as short-term studies in the West have shown GM
maize to be safe to eat, potential health concerns are mainly about long-
term effects. The "risk to the environment" lies in uncontrolled
propagation of GM grain at a time when its long-term effects are unknown.
This, Ochieng says, is a major possibility.

"Communities that benefit from the food aid could easily be tempted to
plant (GM seed) in their farms." For a solution, Ochieng points to Malawi
and Zambia, where authorities require that any GM grain being shipped
into their countries be milled to forestall unintended and uncontrolled

Although Kenya has an extensive institutional infrastructure to regulate
the biotechnology sector, this only works to control research efforts. It
was seen most recently during open field trials of transgenic maize
conducted jointly by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and
American seed firm Syngenta. The trial, at Kiboko in Machakos District,
was meant to test a maize variety that incorporates a gene that codes for
the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin and protects plants from insect
pests like the maize stem-borer.

However, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) shut down
the trial after a technician sprayed the trial crop with Furadan, a
pesticide, ruining the experiment. Should such an experiment be
successfully conducted, it may well lead to the widespread adoption of
the GM maize varieties and quickly render the question of uncontrolled
planting moot.

Kephis Managing Director, Dr Chagema Kedera, points out that
biotechnology is essential for food security and poverty alleviation. He
concedes that there is concern over potential adverse effects but adds
that all activities concerning GM plants are closely supervised.

"Experimental GM crops (cassava, sweet potatoes, maize and cotton) in the
country are being evaluated under contained and confined facilities with
intensive monitoring and inspection by Kephis," he says. "All trials must
conform to both technical and bio-safety requirements."

He notes that Kenya is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Bio
safety adding that there is a comprehensive approval procedure for GMO
development in Kenya. Applications to conduct all GMOs activities are
subjected to evaluation by respective Institutional Bio safety Committees
(IBCs) before being evaluated by the National Bio-safety Committee under
the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST). They are only
approved after careful evaluation of the latest available scientific

Any commercial release of GMOs will be preceded by mandatory National
Performance Trials as per the Seed and Plant Varieties Act (Cap 326 Laws
of Kenya).

Even with these assurances, Ochieng says the CIN is getting together with
other organisations that have developed GMO testing techniques, such as
Friends of the Earth, to continue lobbying for the labelling of GM products.

"We will also push for the enactment of bio-safety laws with the views to
protecting our health and environment," he says.

                                  PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Benefits are clear, but risks unproven
SOURCE: The Standard - Big Issue, Kenya
DATE:   19 Sep 2005

------------------ archive: ------------------

Benefits are clear, but risks unproven

The issue of agricultural biotechnology is currently at the centre of
major controversy with opponents and proponents engaging each other in
heated debate. Our writer Dann Okoth sought to find out more from Dr
Florence Wambugu, a lead researcher at Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation

Q. What is the biotechnology situation in Kenya?

A. In Kenya, like many other African countries, bio technology is nothing
new and has been going on for a long time. The brewing and fermentation
process -- especially with regard to traditional brews -- is a form of
biotechnology. Equally, the tissue culture (TC) technology is a form of
biotechnology. Tissue culture is the backbone of Kenya's position as the
global leader in pyrethrum production. It has also been used extensively
in replicating the best varieties of sugarcane. The TC banana technology
has helped over half a million farmers in Kenya.

When it comes to the more controversial side of biotechnology, otherwise
known as genetic manipulation (GM) or engineering, the moving of genes
across (and within) species -- Kenya is considered a good potential on the

The country is a regional leader in science and technology, having
produced some of the continent's best scientists. We are also home to
international science organisations such as International Livestock
Research Institute (ILRI), the International Centre for Insect Physiology
and Ecology (ICIPE), International Centre for Research in Agroforestry
(Icraf) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep).

Although we have not commercialised any GM crops, research is going on
with regard to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and
Syngenta Bt maize for control of the stem-borer. The Kari GM sweet potato
is also another attempt through research to the sweet potato virus diseases.

Q. What is the relevance of agricultural biotechnology to smallholder
Kenyan farmers especially on their nutritional needs and food security?

A. When it comes to introduction of new technologies, small-scale farmers
know their decision is critical because they (usually) do not have a Plan
B. Their small pieces of land are all they have and they will only adopt
the new technology if they are convinced it has proven benefits.

If the TC banana is any indication, the Kenyan small-scale farmers are
willing to take calculated risks. Within 10 years, the TC banana
technology has taken off with over 500,000 farmers having benefited. Now
Nepad has adopted the project for up-scaling across Africa.

We believe that the first-level technology has already demonstrated its
positive impact on hunger and nutrition. We are told in communities that
we work in that the technology has even had spin-off benefits for HIV-
Aids patients because people cannot take medicine on an empty stomach. We
also know that our farmers (those who have adopted TC bananas) never
received food assistance during the recent famine; instead, they were
providing food for their neighbours.

We believe that once Kenyan farmers have access to Bt maize or cotton,
the same benefits proven elsewhere will be recorded.

Q. What role does agricultural biotechnology play in food security in the

A. We believe that the full benefits of this technology will be realised
when we begin to use the technology to improve our own foods, for example
what Kari is doing with Bt maize and sweet potatoes.

However, I must underline that no technology on its own will solve the
food security challenge that Kenya faces. We need to view the GM
technology as catalytic. If Kenya can identify how best to use the
technology and support it with human and infrastructural capacity, better
agricultural policies, access to water and micro-credit and local,
regional and international markets, then the future is indeed bright.

Q. What are some of the potential benefits and risks of agricultural

A. We must emphasise that biotechnology has demonstrated benefits. These
are real benefits that have been quantified scientifically. However, when
it comes to risk -- which I would rather call concerns -- then these are
'potential risks' (because they have not been proven).

Globally, there are now 81 million hectares of GM crops. Proven benefits
include increased yields and productivity, reduced use of pesticides and
better health for millions of farmers. Africa is yet to benefit from
herbicide tolerance technology, which would free millions of farmers who
spend long days bent over to pull out weeds. Africa also stands to
improve its nutrition and health through bio fortification.

Potential risks -- or concerns -- include allergies, toxins, use of limited
genetic diversity, high technology costs and environment-related
problems. However, these are potential risks and have not been documented
anywhere in any study that I have seen.

Q. Concerns have been raised about health risks and a threat to the
environment through GMOs, what are your thoughts?

A. There has not been one proven, documented evidence of hazard to the
environment, human or animals. Those opposed to the technology have been
proven wrong once and again.

For example, in the case of the Monarch butterfly in USA (a 1999
butterfly survival study by Cornell University that concluded Monarch
butterflies may be threatened by pollen from genetically modified maize),
evidence showed that there were more butterflies because crops were no
longer being sprayed with chemicals, which would also have killed the
insects (so the Bt maize was no worse than chemical spraying).

Going by the US and South Africa's situation, the regulatory systems
there seem to be working. Generally, GM crops are tested by regulatory
agencies to ensure removal of allergies and toxins and they have been
proved are safe before being released for food and or to the environment.
Although there have been several claims of this risk or that, none has
been proven.

In Kenya, the concerns raised about health risks and a threat to the
environment cannot be dismissed, although we must emphasis that we are
only at the research phase. However, Kenya is in the process of
establishing an effective regulatory system compliant to global Cartagena
Protocol. There are plans for a GMO Act, which will better define how
Kenya plans to be engaged with this important technology. Meanwhile, only
field-testing of GM crops has been taking place.

Q. Do we already have genetically modified products in our markets?

A. There are no commercial GM crops in Kenya, to the best of my knowledge.

Q. Europe has largely rejected agricultural biotechnology for varying
reasons. Could Kenya, perhaps, borrow a leaf from their book?

A. It is not true that all European countries have rejected
biotechnology. Also, the EU has lifted the GM moratorium and set a
regulatory system to check trading in GM products.

Again, European countries are not necessarily opposed to GM crops because
they are bad or have a risk. Kenyans, and Africans in general, must
understand that at the root of the EU dithering over GM crops is a
complex trade war with the US, with the US being on the lead to export to
EU and EU trying to protect their market.

Kenyans should appreciate that our engagement with the technology must be
based on a risk and benefit analysis rooted in our unique needs. We must
remember that the EU has problem of food surplus, so technologies that
increase production are not desirable. Kenya should not borrow blindly or
listen uncritically to anti-GM activists' campaign.

Q. Are there laws to regulate the biotechnology sector?

Kenya has an extensive institutional infrastructure to regulate the
biotech sector. However, this framework is only adequate for the level of
research currently going on. Obviously, with the commercialisation of GM
crops, different and more robust regulatory frameworks are required.

The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis), National Science
and Technology Council and the Bio safety Committee of Kenya (which
currently issues permits for field trials) are aware of the regulatory
needs now and in future and are putting relevant frameworks in place for
the legislation. The planned GMO Act is part of this important process
and will, of course, be preceded by a Bill in Parliament that will allow
Kenyans to thoroughly debate the issue before deciding what is the best
system for the country.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
In den Steinäckern 13
D - 38116 Braunschweig

P: +49-531-5168746
F: +49-531-5168747
M: +49-162-1054755
E: coordination(*)
W: <>

   GENET-news mailing list