By Daniel Otunge
The recent unexpected lifting of the de facto ban on genetically modified organism (GMO) foods by President William Ruto’s nascent government could be a pointer to good tidings for science and science policy in Kenya.
Successive governments have not given much attention and support to evidence-based policy. Most research institutions have remained underfunded for years thereby limiting their ability to undertake studies that could inform policy.
Most of us working in the science space are hopeful that Ruto’s government will be different in terms of the treatment of science and scientists. A government that mistreats its scientists cannot go far.
Indeed his first move to lift the impugned de facto GMO ban is consistent with the support he has given over the years to biotech development in Kenya in his different executive capacities.
To begin with, as Agriculture Minister during President Mwai Kibaki’s first term, Ruto fully supported the passage of the Biosafety Bill into law. During a parliamentary debate on the Biosafety Bill in 2008 led by Dr. Sally Kosgei, the then Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, President Ruto (then agriculture minister) fully supported the bill.
For instance, during the Second Reading of the Bill on December 2, 2008, Ruto called on the house to pass the bill into law because his ministry needed to use modern biotechnology to boost food production in the country. He reminded the house that millions of Kenyans were dependent on food aid including grain imports hence the country needed to use all possible means to become food secure.
According to the Hansard for that day, Ruto said: “Eighteen percent of the country is arable land under rain-fed agriculture. We can only expand so much of that land and bring it under agricultural activities. For us to develop varieties that are drought-resistant, use less water, have a higher yield, and are disease-resistant, we need this Biosafety Bill to give us the framework to engage research and science so that we can better the lives of mankind.”
The members of parliament (MPs) heeded Dr. Ruto’s call and passed the bill, which was later assented to in 2009 by President Kibaki thus giving Kenya the Biosafety Act 2009.
Although President Kibaki signed the Biosafety Act 2009 into law, it was during his administration that the smooth implementation of the Act and its attendant regulations was dealt a deadly blow when the then Public Health minister Beth Mugo used her powers under Section 11 of the Public Health Act, Cap 242, Laws of Kenya, to orchestrate a de facto ban on GMO imports, alleging that they were unsafe.
The Minister’s push to ban GMOs was triggered by the publication of an erroneous report by Seralini, a French Scientist, in September 2012 by the Elsevier Journal which claimed that rats fed on Roundup (glyphosate) ready maize had developed some tumors. The paper was later withdrawn on 28 Nov. 2013 by the journal for lack of scientific evidence. Thus, it is unfortunate that such a discredited report guided Kenya’s policy on GMOs for over a decade.
Under Kibaki, GMO research was allowed to continue but their commercialization was disallowed. The so-called ban was de factor and not de jure because it was never gazetted due to lack of legal basis for its gazettement as the then Attorney General, Prof Githu Muigai, is said to have advised.
Even so, the Public Health department and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) religiously enforced the de facto ban. For example, for a long time, NEMA refused to give an environmental impact assessment permit to facilitate the open field trials of insect-resistant maize developed by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) citing the ban.
Indeed, as President Ruto argued in parliament in December 2008, the ban brought untold suffering to millions of Kenyans due to the high cost of maize flour. This is because non-GM maize is very expensive in the global grain market. Maize millers’ passionate appeal to the government to allow them to import GMO maize fell on deaf ears.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government continued Kibaki’s policies, including the de facto ban. However, he allowed the commercial release of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Cotton and Virus resistant Cassava but not GM maize. This was baffling because the same Bt gene is used to protect cotton from bollworms and maize from stem borers.
As Agriculture Minister, Ruto was also instrumental in the development, adoption and implementation of the National Biotechnology Awareness Creation Strategy (BioAWARE), which he launched in 2008 while opening a regional biotechnology meeting organized by Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and its partners.
He used the occasion to voice strong support for agricultural biotechnology creating momentum that led to the promulgation of the Biosafety Act 2009 and the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority.
The science behind genetically modified or transgenic crops is solid and settled. The scientists behind it know exactly what they are doing. Besides, the science has evolved away from foreign gene inserting (transgenics) to gene editing whereby scientists are able to pinpoint problematic genes and remove them to make the crop better.
As a scientist, Dr. Ruto understands GMO science better than his predecessors and, therefore, cannot sit back and watch as politics takes over science policy. He rightly sees science as the bedrock of development. He is not intimidated by the activists who are more interested in politics rather than the soundness of GMO science. It must be noted that public participation does not mean public consensus.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Ruto has used his powers to remove the de facto ban. It is hoped that he will use his science background and strong belief in science-led development policy to ensure adequate funding to research institutions. Currently, the National Research Fund and KALRO, among other critical research agencies, are grossly underfunded. In addition, he will need to routinely visit research institutions and hold talks with scientists to understand their limitations and fix them.
Perhaps this is the era of science-led development. And the First lady, Rachel Ruto’s decision to spearhead national climate action efforts is a further testimony that this administration may just be the right one for science. It can only be hoped that Azimio leaders’ will see sense and drop their ill-advised opposition to modern biotechnology as they risk being branded as an anti-science coalition.
The writer is the Director of the Africa Science Media Center.