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On November 8th 2012, the Kenyan government banned the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations and open cultivation of genetically modified crops.

Almost ten years later, in October 2022, the government revoked the ban on genetically modified crops, in part to deal with the drought that was ravaging the country causing widespread hunger and high food prices. While lifting the ban, President William Ruto cited the need to adapt to climate change and reduce reliance on rain-fed agriculture.

“We are adopting emerging and new alternatives to farming that will ensure early maturity and more production of food to cushion millions of Kenyans from perennial famine,” President Ruto said when revoking the ban.

There have been mixed reactions to the decision, with those opposed concerned about the potentially harmful effects on health, the environment and small farms, while supporters say lifting the ban will improve food security.

President Ruto gave assurances that the Kenya National Biosafety Authority, the body established to exercise general supervision and control over the transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), had developed guidelines for their introduction into the country’s food chain.

This was immediately refuted by the coordinator of the Biosafety Association of Kenya Ann Maina, who said there was no sufficient evidence that GMOs would combat food insecurity or provide farmers with socio-economic benefits.  Ms Maina said the Authority did not have the capacity to regulate GMOs as it had limited personnel and financial resources to properly undertake its mandate.

Instead of allowing GMOs, Ms Maina urged the government to increase its research funding for organisations such as the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation to develop local innovations and technologies that can spur agricultural growth.

Food security as a concept emerged in the mid-1970s during the global food crisis. At the time, the discussion focused primarily on food supply problems—availability and, to some extent, the price stability of food commodities—at the international and national level. Over time, the definition has evolved to be more inclusive and comprehensive by acknowledging the complexities linked to technology and policy issues and other emerging factors such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Food security is when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that they prefer/are likely to enjoy and access. It connotes that the food is physically within reach, socially acceptable within the space they are in and they have the financial means to purchase it at all times,” says Antonina Mutoro, an associate research scientist in nutrition and food systems at the African Population and Health Research Center.

Food insecurity is a recurring issue, with 3.2 million Kenyans in the arid and semi-arid regions (24 per cent of the population) facing high levels of acute food insecurity as of September 2022. The numbers were projected to increase to 4.4 million (29 per cent of the population) by October last year according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. With 80 per cent of the country considered to be arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) and dominated by smallholder farmers, there is even less arable land for the expansion of crop production.

Land fragmentation

The percentage of total land use for agriculture has remained constant since 2013 at 27.6 million hectares, which is 48.6 per cent of the country’s total land area, yet the population continues to increase at 2 per cent annually.

The total land area used for agriculture is further subdivided, with 77 per cent used for permanent meadows and pastures, 21 per cent arable land used for crop production and 1.9 per cent used for perennial crops like coffee and tea.

A report released in October 2021 by the National Land Commission on the effects of land fragmentation and food security in 13 counties in Kenya—with secondary data from KNBS—indicated that the number of smallholder farmers with less than five hectares increased by 55 per cent in 2015/2016. The study established that this was happening mostly in areas of high agricultural production.

The average decline of farm sizes is not only a serious threat to farm productivity and food security but also to natural ecosystems such as forests as it is one of the main causes of encroachment. The division of land into smaller units that are too small to be viable is not conducive to optimal economic production as the smaller portions cannot be used for the same purpose as before the subdivision.

As a result, in 2021, Kenya’s rate of dependency on importation for food production was 12.7 per cent with its self-sufficiency rate at 90.3 per cent.

Status of food security in Kenya

Kenya was ranked 94 out of 121 countries In the 2022 Global Hunger Index. The scores are calculated based on a formula that combines four indicators used to measure progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals: undernourishment, child stunting, child wasting and child mortality.

Undernourishment or hunger focuses on the general population while the other indicators relate to children, who are particularly vulnerable. At a score of 23.5, Kenya’s hunger levels are considered “serious”.  A score of 9.9 and below is recommended.

Further, Kenya was ranked 82 out of 113 countries in the 2022 Global Food Security Index, which measures four indicators—affordability, availability, quality and safety, and sustainability and adaptation. Affordability measures the ability of consumers to buy food, their vulnerability to price shocks and policies to support consumers when price shocks occur. Availability measures agricultural production and on-farm capabilities, the risk of supply disruption, and national capacity to disseminate food research to expand agricultural output. The quality and safety indicator measures the variety and nutritional quality of the average diet, as well as the safety of food, while the sustainability and adaptation indicator assesses a country’s exposure to impacts of climate change, its susceptibility to natural resource risks and how the country is adapting to these risks.

Kenya had an overall food security score of 53 per cent, which is the weighted average of the scores on the four indicators – affordability (41.7 per cent), availability (52.5 per cent), quality and safety (68.8 per cent) and sustainability and adaptation (52.6 per cent).

Of the four indicators, Kenya scored the lowest and below average on affordability, yet the ability to buy food is often overlooked as a factor in food security. Instead, hunger is often perceived through the lens of stark images in places like Turkana, Moyale and Wajir where large herds of livestock die and where people are perennially dependent on food aid.

As food costs continue to rise Kenyans have been cutting back on meals. “We have been forced to adjust to just two meals a day and sometimes one meal a day. We occasionally have fruits with meals and even further substitute some food items as we cannot afford them,” said Rose Mbaru, a Nairobi resident who told The Elephant that the cost of living has affected her family’s meal plans over the years.

Antonina Mutoro refers to this as a coping mechanism indicative of a household being food insecure, a situation that is commonplace in many Kenyan households.

Food security and affordability

In February, Kenyans spent 13.3 per cent more on food and non-alcoholic beverages, an increase of 1.2 per cent from January, with food prices being noted as a key driver of inflation amid a 9.2 per cent total average increase in the prices of goods and services. As of 16 March 2023, 10.8 million people were not consuming enough food.

Affordability is a key contributor to food insecurity; 17 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1.90 (Sh250) per day which translates to 8.9 million Kenyans living in extreme poverty. With the escalating food prices, people are using coping strategies like skipping meals and consuming cheaper and nutritionally inadequate food.

In countries where GMOs are permitted, food prices are lower by about 12.5 per cent. Proponents of genetically modified foods thus promote them as a chance to sustainably feed the growing population even as the country grapples with the worst drought ever.

While affordable food is a good thing, Felistus Mwala of Route to Food argued that the hunger situation should not be used as an opportunity to introduce GMOs. She said that the introduction of GMOs violates Kenyans’ right to food by infringing on the concept of acceptable quality.

Route to Food SurveyA survey by Route to Food carried out last year assessed Kenyans’ perception of GMOs by looking at the level of awareness, willingness to consume and grow GMOs, and access to information on GMOs. It indicated that 57 per cent of Kenyans were not willing to consume GMOs, while 43 per cent were willing. It is disquieting to note that Kenyans who have more exposure to food insecurity, with less knowledge of GMOs, are more receptive to GMOs. Their willingness reflects their vulnerability rather than choice and free will.

Effect of drought

With the sixth failed rainy season in Kenya and high dependence on rain-fed agriculture, agricultural production has been severely affected, contributing to high food prices. GMOs are drought-resistant and studies have shown that genetically modified crops need up to 25 per cent less water to produce a regular yield.

Maize which is the staple food for Kenyans grows in areas with an annual rainfall of 600 to 1200 mm that is well distributed throughout the growing season. With irrigation, it can also be grown in the ASAL regions where annual rainfall does not exceed 100 mm. Therefore, even with the 25 per cent water reduction, GMO farming would still need to be heavily supplemented by irrigation.

Irrigation rates have been growing in Kenya but are not close to matching existing needs with irrigated fields occupying only two per cent of Kenya’s total area under agricultural production. More than 95 per cent of Kenya’s agricultural output is produced in rain-fed farming systems, yet only 17 per cent of the country’s arable land is deemed suitable for rain-fed agriculture. The remaining 83 per cent requires irrigation for optimal crop growth due to inadequate and infrequent rainfall.

Overreliance on maize 

Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only affected food production and the cost of inputs but also disrupted supply chains, Kenya is experiencing one of the worst droughts in the last four decades, which has affected maize production. Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine has affected the supply of grains and key inputs like fertilisers. All these events have resulted in the rise in the cost of production of maize to about KSh4,000 for a 90kg bag; a two-kilogramme packet of flour is retailing at KSh200.

“Over-reliance on maize, a staple food, is a key contributor to food insecurity. This means we are missing out on a variety of foods like millet and sorghum which are relatively nutritious. We have to diversify our dietary habits,” says Ms Mutoro.

“The introduction of GM maize is not solving the issue of overreliance but worsening it and taking away with it the opportunity of Kenyans exploring different foods with the same nutritional value that are less costly and require less water to produce,” adds Ms Mutoro.

Food loss and waste

Food loss and wastage also contribute to food insecurity. In Kenya, KSh72 billion is lost annually through food waste and post-harvest losses at different stages of the value chain according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United States Agency for International Development. The report estimates that post-harvest losses can reach up to 20 per cent for cereals, 30 per cent for dairy and fish and 40 per cent for fruits and vegetables.

While food loss and food waste are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Food loss is the decrease in quantity or quality resulting from the decisions and actions of food suppliers in the chain—for example, food that is discarded or incinerated along the supply chain, excluding the retail level, and does not re-enter at any productive level as either feed or seed. Food waste refers to a decrease in quantity or quality as a result of the decisions and actions of food service providers, retailers and consumers.

The gaps in our food system that contribute to food loss and wastage are farm management constraints, and market supply and policy-related constraints. Limited cold chain storage at the production level leads to produce going bad. Moreover, farmers’ limited awareness of timing of the entire crop production process, from planting to harvest, results in produce flooding the market.

On policy-related constraints, there are limited policies and strategies for the export of value-added produce and a poor regulatory environment and low government support for the food system supply chain.

Training on value addition through pre-cooking and biofortification may reduce the amount of harvested fresh produce going to waste and also put more money in farmers’ pockets. Farmers also need better access to post-harvest handling equipment like solar dryers for cereals like maize, pulses, and rice to ensure proper drying of produce and food safety by reducing aflatoxin levels. They also need cold chain management of vegetables and fruits from farms to packaging areas to lower spoilage by reducing dehydration. Supporting these technologies for local manufacturing would increase access and make them more affordable to small-scale farmers.

Moreover, diversification of the market for export so that grade 2 produce can be packaged and sold to the domestic market, as opposed to what is rejected being rendered as waste, would enhance the local supply of food. Improving road networks in rural areas for better rural-urban linkages to ease the transportation of farm produce to the end market would also serve as an intervention against food loss.

“With improved transport systems across the country for efficient food distribution, excess food in one region can reach regions with insufficient supply,” explained Ms Mutoro.

All these interventions require adequate allocations to the agriculture budget. While Kenya committed to increasing budgetary allocation to the sector to at least 10 per cent by ratifying the Maputo Protocol, the 2022/2023 budget allocated a meagre 1.39 per cent, making it difficult to invest in food storage systems and other off-farm activities.

Resilience through agroecology

According to Felistus Mwala of Route to Food, a key cog missing in the efforts to address food insecurity in the face of climate change is agroecology.

“Agroecology is an approach to farming and food systems that builds resilience against climate change and market shocks while empowering big and small producers. The concept and principles of agroecology extend beyond food production and off-the-farm, to whole food distribution and consumption. Farmers work with nature and use environmentally-friendly processes. They use what is locally available and low inputs. It not only promotes intergenerational equity but supports income and sustainable development,” said Ms Mwala.

Food security as a right

After all is said and done, all these interventions and the food security discussion must be underpinned by a focus on the constitutional right to food, according to Njeri Karanu, Senior Program Officer at Rural Outreach Africa and secretariat to the Right to Food Coalition.

“The constitution is explicit on the right to food in Article 43(1) c. In addition, we have many policies and laws that talk about food, but we have not moved the needle in the realisation of the right to food,” said Ms Karanu.

The high burden of malnutrition and routine hunger in Kenya is not only a threat to the achievement of national goals as well as the Sustainable Development Goals but is also an indication of inadequate realisation of human rights.

However, while Article 43(1) c is an important milestone and the basis for the realisation of the right to food, it is not sufficient in itself as it does not provide an elaborate framework to actualise this right. Therefore, the Right to Food Coalition—a partnership of 40 civil society organisations made up of researchers, academia, policy think tanks, consumer groups, and legal and media organisations—is developing a legal framework with binding obligations to realise this right.

The proposed Right to Food Bill will outline policies and accountability and redress mechanisms, and the resources needed to address challenges faced by Kenyans in accessing healthy food. It will use a systems lens to address issues cutting across sectors and groups, including access to water, land and tenure rights, inadequate safety nets, and poverty, among others. Although the right to food is achieved progressively, there should be a baseline to ensure there is no regression.

“The right-to-food bill will be developed in a participatory process by civil society and government, taking into account the needs of all Kenyans from all walks of life. A human rights approach to solving the problem of hunger and malnutrition is transformative. It addresses the inequities in the food system, promotes meaningful citizen participation, and establishes accountability mechanisms. It takes a long time, but it holds the promise to deliver long-term solutions,” says Ms Karanu.

The path to alleviating food insecurity is layered with complex challenges and GMOs are not a one-size-fits-all solution. “A rights-based multifaceted approach that looks at the underlying structural causes of food insecurity and focuses on sustainability is best,” concludes Ms Mwala.

This article was produced as part of the Aftershocks Data Fellowship (22-23) with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with The ONE Campaign and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).