Kenya 'about to' legalise controversial GM crops, a look at the costs and benefits in Africa's context

Seeds of discord, health concerns and high costs - yet life saving. The debate rages on...

KENYA’s Deputy President William Ruto last week said the country will lift the ban on genetically modified crops in the next two months.  The products were banned in the country since 2012 following a contentious study in France that linked genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to cancer. 

Now, following consultations between “various government ministries, departments and agencies concerned with biotechnology” they have reached the conclusion that with the necessary regulations and safety measures, that the country will look to science and technology to “take us to the next level”. 

Genetic modification refers to techniques that manipulate the genetic composition of an organism by adding specific useful genes. These useful genes could make crops high-yielding, disease resistant or drought-resistant - all particularly useful traits considering a third of Africa’s population lives in drought-prone areas and that there are an increasing number of mouths to feed.

So what’s the problem?

GM foods in Africa have primarily been rejected because of health concerns. Questions have been raised over the fate of the newly inserted DNA after it has been consumed by humans. Either because of concerns over the possibility of transfer of the DNA from the food derived from genetically engineered plant into mammalian cells, gastrointestinal bacteria, or soil bacteria. Or because of concerns of inserted genes that confer resistance to antibiotics. 

However, NEPAD states that these fears are seen as largely unfounded since DNA is chemically identical regardless of its source.

What adds to the confusion over GM food safety is that the European Union has extremely stringent regulations and GMOs are are subject to extensive, case-by-case, science-based food evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority.

Seeds of discord

Potential health concerns aside, the second predominant reason why GM has been rejected in Africa is because of the negative effects GM crops and seeds have on soil health, seed diversity and on farmer incomes. 

Rosemary Kadzitche, a farmer from Malawi, describes how this is affecting female farmers in particular. In Malawi, like many other African countries, women are traditionally the custodians of seeds. 

Rosemary explains that women developed this role as they preserved seeds from current crops for the planting season the following year. She says that this occurred because women invested more time “planning the farming, while the men do not consider or prioritise the seeds, they don’t think that far ahead.”

But the women’s role is being compromised and the women are increasingly concerned about new hybrid seeds that are flooding the markets. At the ground level the hybrid seeds are presenting a new set of challenges. 

According to agronomist, Jacopo Parigiani, the nature of the hybrid seed is that it is developed to have low fertility, decreasing ability to germinate, in the preceding generations. “They do this because it’s a business”, he says, “they need to ensure people keep buying to sustain the industry.” This means that women are not able to preserve or exchange seeds and are instead compelled to buy hybrid seeds every year. 

This comes at a high cost. To maintain the hybrid seeds expensive fertilisers are needed, as are pesticides, to preserve certain strains when the harvest is in storage. In fact research conducted by the African Centre for Biosafety in 2014, found that when increased input costs are taken into account, farmers adopting these technologies “realise a potential income deficit of K55,954 (US$133.22).”

A further concern is the impact on the ecosystem. GM crop varieties with several insecticidal and herbicidal traits are being developed and approved 

Benefits?

The situation however is a bit of a Catch-22. 

GM crops can also have life, and livelihood, saving benefits. In Africa, there are approximately 265 million undernourished people, translating to one out of every three persons. This is set to increase rapidly - by 2030 the continent will need to feed 1.5 billion people and 2 billion by 2050. This is a monumental challenge for a continent whose food production is highly threatened by environmental fluctuations and land degradation.

Malawi for example, experienced the worst flooding the country has ever seen, whilst other changing weather patterns include droughts. 

The losses incurred to farmers and in terms of food security were devastating with both the droughts and floods severely damaging agricultural production, particularly for maize, the dominant staple. Dry spells for example caused losses of 20-30% of total yield per hectare. 

The hybrid GM seeds being produced could help meet the changing needs. Some seeds for example are coated with fertiliser or chemicals which give them a higher chance of survival after germination, a potential food security life-saver for households.


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