Why Kenya is turning to genetically modified crops to help with drought

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Eva Wanjiru
Image caption,
Eva Wanjiru does not want genetically modified crops for sale on the Kenyan market

As Kenya prepares to commercialise genetically modified crops, there is resistance from some farmers and campaign groups, who question their safety.

"You are making what we eat worse than it is," accuses farmer Eva Wanjiru.

She is concerned by the fact many Kenyan farmers will begin using genetically modified (GM) maize seeds early next year, after the government recently reversed a 10-year ban on the crops.

The seeds will be planted on half-a-million acres and will be drought resistant, the country's agricultural authority says, thus helping curb shortages caused by the lack of rain.

However there is nothing to fear when it comes to eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the human body, says Richard Oduor, a professor of biotechnology at Kenyatta University.

"There is no science-based evidence linking biotech to cancer. I find it to be a convenient debate because why are we comfortable taking genetically modified insulin but can't take GM foods because of imaginary effects? The claims are baseless," he told the BBC.

In any case, he says, GMOs are closely monitored after their release.

Kenya is currently facing a severe water shortage caused by four failed consecutive rainy seasons, amid one of the harshest droughts the East African region has seen in four decades. This means crops are not able to grow, prompting warnings of potential famine.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Animals have suffered in Kenya's drought, but that could be eased if GM animal feed is allowed to be used

GM seeds are those which have been genetically altered to produce what are seen as desirable qualities such as drought and pest resistance - and it is due to this resilience that some have a more positive view than Ms Wanjiru.

They say the lifting of the GMO ban was prompted by the real need to ensure food security and to safeguard the environment.

"Climate change, the severity of drought and the emergence of new pests such as fall armyworms and maize stalk borer, and diseases such as maize lethal necrosis pose a real threat to food, [cattle] feed and nutritional security," said Dr Eliud Kireger, director general of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.

These diseases and pests destroy the maize crop. For example, fall armyworms eat through most of the vegetation as they make their way through crops.

Food scientists also say the technology will reduce the continent's dependence on food imports because it will boost production.

"We should embrace technology and see it as a part solution to the challenges we are facing more than what are the concerns", said Dr Murenga Mwimali, from the Alliance for Science at Cornell University in the US.

Targeting Kenya's staple

A 2018 review of studies on GMOs suggested that over the past 20 years the yield from GMO maize has improved.

Kenya's biotechnology regulator says there is evidence that costs are reduced because of improved weed control, less application of pesticides and reduced labour.

Lifting the ban means that Kenyan farmers can now openly cultivate GM crops, as well as import food and animal feeds produced through genetic modification, such as white GMO maize.

Maize is Kenya's staple food, and is grown in 90% of all Kenyan farms. It is used to prepare ugali, or maize meal, which is the country's most commonly eaten dish.

Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya's economy, employing 80% of the rural population. Kenyan farmers rely on their crops not only for income but as a source of food for their families.

Image caption,
Ms Wanjiru is advocating this kind of organic corn

Ms Wanjiru has been practising organic farming for years in Kiangwaci in Sagana, 110km (70 miles) north-east of the capital, Nairobi. She does not use pesticides or hybrid seeds on her one-acre farm.

She believes there is not sufficient evidence to prove that crops produced through biotechnology will help the country combat food insecurity.

"Most of the farmers who plant these GMOs complain about pests and diseases. If there is no rain, they still complain about [how] the crop is faring in the farm. I don't think it is a solution."

There are also fears that farmers who start using GMOs will become reliant on the companies that sell the genetically modified seeds, and they will start to dominate the market to the detriment of ordinary Kenyan farmers.

'Draconian laws'

"Allowing these companies to dominate the production and importation market of key crops such as maize is likely to affect the livelihoods of the farmers who, in Kenya, produce about 40-45 million bags of maize every year," said Claire Nasike, environmental scientist at Greenpeace Africa.

"Lifting the GMO ban will also expose farmers to draconian intellectual property laws related to patents held by GMO multinationals. GM seed is patented and this could land the farmers on whose farm GM crops have grown without their knowledge into intellectual property disputes," Ms Nasike continued.

But Dr Stephen Mugo, director of the Centre for Resilient Agriculture for Africa, argues that Kenya will not be at the mercy of multinationals.

"It's a far-fetched thought because Kenya has the capacity to develop GM crops. Most companies lease the technology which they use create new genes," he said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
GMO crops are especially designed to be more resistant to drought and pests

A survey conducted by a non-governmental organisation, Route to Food Initiative, last year showed that 57% of Kenyans do not welcome GMOs, who will now have to be persuaded.

A state agency tasked with exercising general supervision and control of the transfer, handling and use of GMOs says the maize varieties have been subjected to clinical trials and passed safety assessments.

Officials say they will not present risks to human health.

"We checked all parameters of safety within international standards and the experience over the last 26 years shows that there hasn't been any credible report on the effects on human health, animal health and environment," said Dr Roy Muriiga, head of the National Biosafety Authority.

Kenya is the eighth country in the continent to approve the use of GMOs. They are currently approved for cultivation in 70 countries around the world.

But such reassurances will not be enough to convince a sceptical public such as Ms Wanjiru to plant, or eat, GMO crops because of their concerns over the safety and doubts over the forecast economic benefits.

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