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Kenya’s maize famine underscores need for Africa to confront GMO fears

A lethal disease affecting maize and growing concern over a food crisis has put the spotlight back on the Kenyan government’s controversial decision to ban GM crops in 2012.

The disease, known as Maize Lethal Necrosis, threatens to cut the yield of maize by almost one third this year and affect as many as 70 percent of the farmers growing the crop, a key Kenyan staple.

“They eat maize almost every day,” notes  Kenyan agricultural researcher Simon Gichuki in a Voice of America article by contributor Hilary Heuler. “There are people who eat it for lunch, and they also eat it for dinner and breakfast. So when there is no maize in Kenya, we usually say there is famine.”

Protective measures such as bathing the seeds in insecticide and fungicide have increased the costs of production and could push food prices, which are already high, even higher.  The grim news comes at a time when consumption is expected to increase by 2.75 percent.

An estimated 1.6 million Kenyans required emergency food assistance this year because of the disease problems combined with lagging productivity due to severe droughts. Similarly disturbing trends in other African nations highlight the need for Africa to look to GMOs as part of the solution.

The GMO debate has not been unique to Kenya. South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso are the only four African nations that have approved GM crops thus far. Even among the four, Sudan and Burknia Faso allow only GM cotton while the other two allow the cultivation of altered maize.

Along with concerns about safety, a Kenyan Member of Parliament pointed to France’s rejection of GM maize and suspicion about Monsanto’s “corporate interests” in Kenya’s food markets as reasons why the ban should stay.

But this is about more than just fears of multi-national corporations or rejection of GMOs by EU countries. Despite an apparent need, African governments’ fears have left them in a state of paralysis when it comes to food security.

Kenyan scientist Gichuki has been working on GM maize that is resistant to the lethal necrosis disease but has not been able to release the seeds due to the ban. Similar research efforts in Tanzania to develop a virus resistant variety of cassava have been held back by the nation’s stringent policies. In both cases it is likely that the intellectual property will be owned by the universities or governments rather than a corporation.

John Vidal, environment editor at the Guardian and an aggressive opponent of GM crops, has suggested that Africa’s trade dependency on the EU might be one reason why governments have been slow to move on this issue. He quoted a spokeswoman for the European Academies Science Advisory Council (Easac)

“EU policy on GM crops is massively important for Africa. A lot of countries are scared to do any research. They fear they will be punished by EU restrictions. They depend on the EU for their exports.”

A second reason might be the lack of awareness, resources and scientific expertise to tackle regulatory issues. Some Nigerian government officials, for example, have expressed concerns about their country being used as a testing ground for GMOs, while in Uganda one report suggested that there is a glaring lack of awareness among lawmakers about the potential of biotechnology.

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A study published in 2013 says that crop biotechnology is one area in which a pan African approach similar to the one taken by the European Union, where research and regulatory oversight is provided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), could be effective in accelerating decision making. SciDev.net contributor Joel Winston points out some key advantages of such a body.

A centralised approach could help by harmonising existing biosafety policies with new ones to strengthen GMO regulation across Africa [according to the study author]. The approach could help ensure that GM products do not harm health or the environment.

Another benefit, according to [the study], would be allowing countries that lack scientific capacity to rely on risk assessments done by a regional body “instead of reinventing the wheel by conducting the same resource-intensive evaluations on a country-by-country basis”.

But to be effective, all members would have to agree to implement any recommendations and accept guidelines put forth by the body which judging by EFSA’s experience with EU members, is no easy task, particularly in Africa.

Thinking beyond just centralized regulation, African nations could also pool their resources to create a much needed funding agency to conduct research and develop new crop varieties using both conventional breeding and targeted genetic modification. Seeds developed through this research could be made available without any royalties to farmers and any economic benefits shared among member nations.

There is hope in Kenya that the ban may soon be lifted, writes Hilary Heuler in Voice of America:

[Kipkorir Menjo, head of the Kenya Farmers Association] says that among farmers themselves, opinions on GMOs are mixed. But a number of lawmakers have been speaking out in favor of lifting the ban.

The pressure is from the MPs because they know the benefits, and why this kind of GMOs are necessary as far as food security is concerned,” said Menjo. “Because every now and then we have been having challenges of having enough food to feed the nation.

“The government is very serious about food security, so I don’t see any reason why this ban is going to be there for long. It will definitely be lifted,” [agrees Simon Gichuki]. “And we in research are not just waiting – we are moving on, preparing, because we are confident that it will be lifted.”

GMOs are not the entire solution for Africa’s food problem – but it should not be dismissed either as it has significant benefits for the struggling continent. If the situation does change in Kenya, it might help allay fears in other African countries and helping meet what is likely to be a growing demand for food and tackle significant malnourishment putting it on a path to food security.

Arvind Suresh is a science communicator and a former laboratory biologist. Follow him @suresh_arvind

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