Kenya at risk of losing funding for GMO crops development

The year 2019 could go down in history as the worst in Kenya’s agriculture sector following serious drought that hit the country. It has subjected thousands of farmers to losses and poses a food security challenge to the nation.

Kenya is among countries whose rain-fed agriculture is in turmoil due to drastic changes in climate, and the pain and frustration among farmers continue to rise daily.

Policy analysts have blamed this woeful scenario on the reliance on rain-fed agriculture and Kenya’s dilly-dallying in adopting Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops.

The World Health Organisation describes GMOs as “organisms (that is plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.

Scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) have been pioneering research on GMO maize in Kenya.

The research, which was completed in 2017, showed that the maize, which has been undergoing confined field trials were drought and insect- resistant. But what sounds like a win for farmers, the public and African scientists may soon become a protracted waste of effort that could leave a negative mark on Kenya’s agro-research prominence and reputation.

That is because Kenya is about to lose access to the technology that fuels the GMO research, which is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Repeated barriers to producing a cohesive policy that could allow for evidence-based implementation of GMOs are causing donors to shift attention toward countries that may be more willing to adapt them.

“Kenya is losing this technology, probably to Nigeria because the donor is not going to pump more money into this research when the current policy has barred commercialisation,” says James Karanja, lead scientist at Kalro for this project.

Dr Karanja says Kenya had been given two years as probation following the initial partnership. Officials were told that if the country fails to adopt the technology by March 2020, then it will be transferred to a country that is willing to adopt it.

Loss of research funding would be a big blow to Kenya, where research is already significantly underfunded. The Gates Foundation has been pumping Sh101 million per year towards this research since the partnership began. The financing was to continue for the next five years.

The release of biotech maize had been set for August 2016 where it was to undergo National Performance Trials (NPTs) before being commercialised.

Confined field trials have been ongoing at Kalro Kiboko research centre since 2010.

Scientists blame this state of affairs on what they term the government’s slow pace in making a decision on adoption of biotech seeds, and the farmers’ reluctance in adopting new seed varieties to stop persistent crop failure.

The rains this year started in May, long after the planting season ended. Farmers who had planted in March suffered huge losses.

Agriculture Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga said last month that a decision on the biotech maize, which was blocked by then Health Secretary Cleopa Mailu in 2017, will be known by next month. “There has been a lot of misinformation that led to the delays in adoption of this technology in Kenya but I can assure you that a decision will be reached soon,” said Prof Boga during a biotech talk at the University of Nairobi in April.

The Mon 87460/Mon 810 variety, which has been undergoing tests on confined fields, can withstand harsh climatic conditions and invasion by pests, the two top challenges farmers face.

Kenya’s foot-dragging on whether to commercialise GMOs may not only mean a loss of funding, but if officials eventually decide that GMOs are safe—ostensibly after another country has successfully adopted the technology—Kenya would have to start all over again from the bottom of the research ladder.

International Social Security Organisation (ISSA) executive director Margaret Karembu says the government has refused to give scientists a chance to provide the technology that can address perennial cases of maize shortages in Kenya and solve malnutrition challenges.

“The country has just announced that it will be importing 12 million bags of maize, this is something that we can avoid with the adoption of biotechnology,” said Ms Karembu.

The National Biosafety Authority chief executive officer Dorington Ogoyi said as a regulator, they were working to ensure that the crops are safe for humans and dismissed allegations that GMO causes cancer.

But there is strong opposition to the introduction of the biotechnology crop, with some quarters arguing that the country is not ready for it.

Wanjiru Kamau, an agriculture policy expert, said genetically-modified seeds and farm produce amounts to corporate takeover of Kenya’s food systems for the extraction of profit as opposed to sustainable farming. She asked the government to instead explore, invest in and research alternative food production systems such as agroecology and organic farming before adopting GMO.

“Over-dependence on corporates for seeds and other farm inputs increases the country’s vulnerability to shocks related to food production.

It lures farmers into the use of agrochemicals and stands in the way of sustainable solutions such as ecological agriculture,” said Ms Wanjiru.

She said GMOs is a form of agriculture that throws farmers into long-term dependency, undermines critical biodiversity and promotes large-scale industrial agriculture, which exacerbates poverty, particularly in cases where the majority of farmers are smallholders.

The taskforce formed to establish the safety of GMO crops following the ban, and influenced by a scientific journal by Seralini that linked GMO crops to cancer, recommended the lifting of the prohibition on a case-by case basis.

Seralini is a one-stop resource for information about the research of Gilles-Eric Séralini and colleagues on genetically modified food crops.

Peter Mokaya, a scientist, argues that whereas GMOs might be good, enough research must be done to ascertain their safety, especially in Kenya where technology is not advanced.

“It should not be more about producing more food but rather the safety of this food that we want to produce,” he said.

He said in the meanwhile, Kenya should address the deteriorating health of soil, which has impacted negatively on production, pointing out that continuous use of wrong fertiliser has increased acidity levels of soil.