By Rosie Spinks, Ecologist
In the midst of a dire need to feed millions of people facing hunger because of drought, Kenya's newly passed Biosafety Act allows for the importation of GM crops - but at what cost?
As the most severe drought crisis in 60 years continues in East Africa, a contentious issue simmers under the surface, one that potentially puts the environmentalist agenda at stark odds with the dire need to save human lives.
Facing a growing number of people in need of food aid, the Kenyan government gazetted existing legislation in August that allows for the importation of genetically modified (GM) crops as well as for the cultivation of GM food crops within Kenya.
Passage of the act makes Kenya the fourth African nation, after South Africa, Egypt and Burkino Faso, to legalise GM crops. While some view the decision as a direct response to the famine, the title of the legislation – the Kenya Biosafety Act of 2009 – indicates that Kenya had GM aspirations for quite some time.
The government’s decision was met with opposition by environmental groups, high-ranking Kenyan parliamentarians, and small-scale subsistence farmers, all of whom fear that the importation of GM seeds could contaminate existing seed stocks and decrease food security.
Teresa Anderson, of the Gaia foundation, which partners with the African biodiversity network to prevent the industrial commoditisation of the continent’s agriculture, says Kenyan farmers’ opposition to the new legislation is a testament to how devastating GM could be for their farming practises.
‘There is a strong resistance from African farmers in particular who are concerned about the impacts’, Anderson says. ‘80 per cent of small scale farmers save their seed; this practise is crucial for African farmers’ livelihoods.’
If a GM seed contaminates a nearby farmer’s non-GM seed (say by accidental wind cross-pollination), the farmer would no longer be able to save his seed for the next planting season, as he would be in possession of a patented product.
In addition to GMO's potential effects on small farmers, Anderson said that Kenya’s new allowance of GM represents a sea change in the East Africa region as a whole.
‘There has been a really long-term, ongoing push by Monsanto and USAID to get GM approved in Kenya because it’s seen as the gateway to Africa’, Anderson says. ‘It’s more developed and it’s connected to the East Africa regional block. Once you have one country with a certain set of biosafety rules they [will try and] push for harmonisation in the region’.
The genetically modified seeds currently produced by agribusiness giants such as Monsanto are ones resistant to a certain pesticide or modified so that they produce a poison that kills predators. Hopes for a GM drought-resistant crop for regions like central Africa have not yet been achieved.
The necessity of GM
Many question if it’s even necessary for Kenya to import GM products to meet the massive food need and whether the nation possesses the regulatory prowess to effectively deal with GM crops once they’ve arrived.
Aid agencies and agricultural officials have reported that farmers in other parts of Kenya do in fact have surplus crops, much of which have been exported to Southern Sudan and elsewhere; agricultural officials claim they are unable to direct where farmers sell their harvest.
‘Even within Kenya, there is actually non-GM maize available’, Anderson says. ‘They’ve either just sold it to other markets or there are no distribution channels in place. If there’s aid going in it should actually be used to develop those channels’.
Parliamentarian Gideon Konchellah was quoted in the Kenyan press echoing Anderson’s claim. ‘There is no need for the government to import maize yet we have the capacity to produce enough maize’.