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.

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. 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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  • Grace

    The fact remains, GMO is no alternative to food security, period. We embrace it, we embrace a myriad of other problems, including their effect on the biodiversity and many other health problems. Why have an evil for an evil. When faced with food insecurity, people have always moved to alternative foods. Maize is not the only food that Africans can live by. They can and will resort to other foods. My biggest question is how did the maize disease manifest itself in such a short period? Was there any role played by the multinationals keen to have countries in third world embrace their lethal organisms? It has been reported before, it can happen again. This all happens in the watchful eyes of the international institutions mandated to look out for the protection of crops in the various parts of the world. Where were the experts on the origins and spread of pathogens and other crop diseases when all this started and spread. And for those pushing third world countries to accept GM foods when their countries shy from embracing the same, why don’t they first come up with a way of testing and proving the kind and extent of modification of these products and a guaranteed schedule indicating daily recommended intake of GM foods, in percentage per 100 grams ingested foods with certain amount of GM products that is safe per daily intake per adult or child. It would be good to have the foods labeled with a safe daily allowed intake of GM foods per 100 grams of the same, what they call the nutritional information with nutritional reference values for the kind of modification in the product, and also give methods for testing or analysis to prove the same or substantiate the same as so labeled.

    • Amelia Jordan

      Grace, your reasoning is practically neanderthal in nature, especially since the possibility to breed disease resistant crops would lead to drastic reductions in the use of pesticides and a reciprocal increase in yield.

      “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

      There is nothing inherently dangerous about genetic engineering, as witnessed by the flood of drugs, vaccines, and antibiotics that are saving lives and the fact that no GE bred crop has ever caused a death or an illness. Ever. There is also the fact that the exchange of DNA between organisms has been a key facilitator in evolution. Our own mitochondria were once free-living bacteria, nematodes have both fungal and bacterial DNA so they can become better parasites, plants have fungal and bacterial DNA, as do other animals!

      We should not stop governments and universities from breeding better crops so that their own people don’t starve, and maybe even they can bring themselves out of poverty.

      • Awoke Amzaye

        What are you talking about? Anything genetically modified is abnormal and therefore lethal. You can advertise GMO, but do not impose your commercial wills on Africans.

        • If anything genetically modified is “abnormal” and “potentially lethal” than stop eating: All your food…all of it…has been GM. Many of the foods you eat were created through bombarding their seeds with radiation and chemicals, such as organic grapefruits and many wheat varieties including the best Italian wheats, and none of them is a GMO. You should brush up on your science.

          • Awoke

            I am not denying that I eat GMO; well I eat GMO foods because I do not have choice. That isn’t my preference. It is the preference of the commercial (multinational corporations’) imposition. I don’t think the ideology you are advocating is the measure of my science knowledge. Just understand me; I am not also opposing GMO or its ads. What I say is don’t impose your will on others in the name of science.

          • Amelia Jordan

            I see that it is European neo-colonialism that is stopping Kenyan researchers from Kenyan universities from using the crops they bred themselves for the people of Kenya. There is no conspiracy for a multi-national to control the food distribution and breeding of Kenya since it is clearly evident that Kenyan researchers and the Kenyan government are fully capable of developing their own crops that will out-compete foreign companies.

          • Wackes Seppi

            “European neo-colonialism” refers to a European (Union or
            State policy), you are by and large off-target.

            problem is essentially internal, with a foreign component.

            there is an affluent class that has adopted the “European
            approach”. It includes some ministers. Unfortunately, they are
            vocal, and heard, contrary to those who starve.

            external component is that some European “NGOs” are
            discretely active, using local “NGOs” to spread their
            anti-GM messages.

            punchy title by the Economist in 2002: “GM crops in Africa:
            Better dead than GM-fed?” Still true today. Without the
            question mark.

        • Amelia Jordan

          You are mistaken. Is insulin lethal? Are vaccines created with genetic modification lethal? Since we’ve been eating GE food for well over a decade with not a single recorded animal or human death, there is no evidence that genetic modification makes anything lethal. What’s more, it’s not abnormal. Gene transfer between Kingdoms happens without human intervention and is a key evolutionary tool.

          • Awoke

            Hi don’t be too optimistic about science. Everything has its
            own problem. Of course, “virtually every pharmaceutical product currently on
            the market can cause allergic reactions in some people” (FYI: refer to Goldstein,
            D.A., Thomas, J. A. 2004. Biopharmaceuticals derived from
            genetically modified plants. QJM: An International
            Journal of Medicine 97:705-716) Moreover, The American Public Health
            Association and American Nurses Association have condemned,, for example, the
            use of the GM bovine growth hormone, because the milk from treated cows has
            more of the hormone IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1)―which is linked to
            cancer. Generally, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, USA) approves drugs when
            their benefits outweigh their risk.

          • Amelia Jordan

            I think that the potential benefits of genetic engineering far outweigh the potential risks, especially since we already know so much about the process and what risks to expect.

    • First Officer

      Safe daily allowed intake of GMO’s per 100 grams is 100 grams.

    • Wackes Seppi

      faced with food insecurity, people have always moved to alternative
      foods. Maize is not the only food that Africans can live by. They can
      and will resort to other foods.”


  • Eric Bjerregaard

    The Ag sustainability group on linked in went over this several times under several different guises. Ag agents were “forcing” farmers to buy g.e. seeds.Folks like Grace would not admit that 2 plus 2 is 4 or that the sky is blue if they thought that the truth would favor a “multinational” The anti business bigotry and wild accusations flowed like the Nile before the Aswan Dam. “lethal organisms” ignoring the fact that folks are not dying over here. The blatant dishonesty and acceptance of wacky propaganda contributed lots to my decision to leave the group. If you point out a fact such as the expense and limited supply of organic inputs. the attacks were even more vicious than from folks in North America. Especially from certain South African alleged farmers that thought that their opinions were valid throughout this continent with its immensely varied circumstances. One apparently mentally related to mike adams, strongly suggested that his opposers needed to die for their crimes. Even golden rice was a plot. There were a few from Africa that spoke up for facts. But I gut reaction is that progress over there will be spotty at best. Especially with folks such as Mugabe running some of the countries and Moslem insurgencies in many areas. I hope I am over reacting….. Call me less than optimistic.