Kenya regulator recommends lifting of ban on genetically modified crops

If adopted decision would benefit major exporters such as South Africa and big multinationals such as Monsanto

KENYA’S National Biosafety Authority recommended the government lift a ban on imports of genetically modified organisms as the body prepares to decide on applications by companies including Monsanto Co. for environmental release of their products in the East African nation.

Kenya imposed a ban on GM crops in November 2012, citing concerns that the organisms are a danger to public health. The decision locked out exporters including South Africa, the biggest corn producer on the continent.

“We recommend lifting the ban,” National Biosafety Authority Chief Executive Officer Willy Tonui said in an interview January 5 in the capital, Nairobi. “We now have border control, surveillance and a strong regulatory system.”

Read: Kenya ‘about to’ legalise controversial GM crops, a look at the costs and benefits in Africa’s context

Kenya is Africa’s largest per-capita corn consumer and the second-biggest seeds market, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Annual corn consumption is estimated at 98 kilogrammes (216 pounds) per person, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Syngenta AG, the Swiss insecticide and seed maker, announced plans in 2014 to build an Africa research centre in Kenya this year.

The NBA received two applications to release genetically modified organisms in Kenya, including one for Bt corn from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization and the AfricaAgricultural Technology Foundation, and one for Bt cotton from Monsanto Kenya Ltd., Tonui said.

The authority expects to make a decision on the GM corn-seed application by January 31, Tonui said. The decision on an application by St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto’s Kenyan unit to release cotton seed in Kenya will be made by February 28, he said, without adding further details.

Betty Kiplagat, a spokeswoman for Monsanto Kenya, confirmed an application has been made to release Bt Cotton in Kenya and the company is awaiting the NBA’s response.

Cotton production in Kenya peaked at 25,080 metric tonnes in 1985, before dropping to 7,750 tonnes by 2013 after liberalisation of the industry led to increased demand for cheaper imports, according to Food and Agriculture Organization data. Burkina Faso, Africa’s largest cotton grower, produced 430,000 tonnes in 2013, FAO data shows.

Genetic modification refers to techniques used to manipulate the genetic composition of an organism by adding specific useful genes. These 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.

But it is often opposed by campaign groups on health grounds with questions raised over the fate of the inserted genes after it has been consumed by humans. 

However, key continental organisation NEPAD (The New Partnership for Africa’s Development) states that these fears are seen as largely unfounded since DNA is chemically identical regardless of its source.

—Bloomberg, additional writing by M&G Africa

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