By Mary Hearty
The lifting of the ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Kenya has raised concerns, especially regarding health safety. However, biotechnology experts have lauded the move terming the method as an additional option for increasing food security.
“We have had many other methods but there is persistent hunger in the country. Therefore, we would want the technology to complement the other ones in order to bring down the cost of living and to enhance food availability and vulnerability,” Dr. Joel Ochieng, an expert in plant biotechnology and the secretary general of the Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium (KUBICO) said during a media briefing hosted by the consortium.
He observed that at the moment, food insecurity has left the government with no choice but to import food in the short term as consumption outweighs production.
The country currently has a deficit of two million metric tons per year, and the gap continues to increase. Yet, the global grain prices show that countries that predominantly grow GM food have lower costs of major cereals such as maize, Dr. Ochieng said.
Additionally, he noted that with the importation and cultivation of GM cereals, the price of food commodities will become much lower.
According to Dr. Ochieng, the Biosafety regulation assures consumers of making informed choices because GM foods whether locally produced or imported have to be labeled to enable the consumers to choose what they want to take. “Nobody is being forced to take it,” he said.
Regarding the safety concerns, he said there have not been any safety concerns observed anywhere in the world.
Prof Richard Oduor, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Chair of KUBICO said Kenya has sufficient infrastructure and human capacity.
In terms of regulatory capacity, he noted that through an Act of Parliament, the country established the existing National Biosafety Authority with the mandate to regulate all activities involving GMOs by ensuring the safety of human and animal health and the provision of adequate protection of the environment.
Dr. Oduor observed that with the measures that have been put in place, the discussion needs to focus on how to ensure that farmers have the right seeds, observe the right time for planting, and have a market for GM crops.
He posited that the technology is not only being used in Kenya, but also in other African countries including South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Sudan, and lately Ghana.
According to the chairman of KUBICO, the technology which has been around for about 40 years, has been used to develop genetically modified insulin for diabetic patients, and was recently used for the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
He also clarified that health concerns such as obesity are not a product of GMOs, and so the public needs to be extensively sensitized, adding that as scientists their focus is not to hurt the public but to protect them.
Currently, only one GM crop has been approved for cultivation in Kenya, which is BT cotton. It received approval in 2019.