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Climate change, coupled with the slackening of food production systems due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has had a significant impact on Africa’s and, by extension, Kenya’s food security situation. The ravaging drought in Kenya’s northern and eastern regions, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine—both countries had been supplementing Kenya’s grain supplies—have exacerbated Kenya’s food insecurity as has the global food inflation. The price of maize flour, a staple in Kenya, has been steadily rising, and the World Food Programme estimates that nearly 4.4 million people were going hungry by the last quarter of 2022 (Kenya received a score of 23.5 on the 2022 Global Hunger Index, putting it in the category of countries facing serious hunger). On the other hand, unemployment remains high and household incomes continue to fall or remain stagnant. 

It is not surprising, then, that when President William Ruto took the helm, he proposed genetically modified (GM) maize as the go-to solution for the country’s starving populations, a proposal that sparked a heated debate that sharply divided Kenyans.

Indeed, one could say that Kenya was technically prepared for the decision with the passing of the Biosafety Act in 2009, which aimed to ensure accountability in the conduct of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) research in order to minimize potential hazards associated with GMOs and protect Kenyans from any health risks that may result from their development, transfer, and handling. However, this was not to be, as the importation of GMOs into the country was prohibited just three years later, following the publication of a study by Gilles-Eric Séralini that linked the consumption of GM foods to the development of cancer in rats.

Looking at Kenya’s current food situation, there is an argument to be made for allowing the importation of GMOs. With an ever growing population, climate stress in an agricultural sector that has a 95 per cent reliance on rainfall, as well as high input costs, and low productivity, among other factors, GMOs appear to be the much needed solution. However, given the differing perspectives on the subject, it is critical that all voices be heard, concerns addressed, and all stakeholders be involved in determining the root causes of underperformance in the sector before GMOs are introduced.

While some of the arguments for and against GMOs are premised on misinformation, most are well-informed by existing research or are legitimately skeptical, especially given the gaps in the information available to the public. Take, for instance, the understanding of what GMOs are. Some sources claim that genetically engineering organisms is a completely natural process, while others claim that it involves unnatural alterations such as the blending of genes from unrelated species, including transferring genes between plants and animals.  In their online resource library, “Encyclopedic Entry”, National Geographic defines a genetically modified organism as “an animal, plant, or microbe whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques”. EU legislation on GMOs officially defines genetically modified organisms as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination”. This implies that the development of GMOs includes the artificial modification of an organism’s genetic makeup. They claim that the biotechnology technique used allows for the transfer of specific individual genes from one organism to another, even between unrelated species. As a result, animal DNA can now be found in plant DNA. Most GMO foods on the market have had their DNA altered to boost traits such as insect or virus resistance, herbicide tolerance, and nutritional quality.

GMO proponents argue that the genetic modification of crops and animals is an age-old practice. However, National Geographic clearly distinguishes between what it terms conventional methods, such as crossbreeding, selective breeding, and grafting, which are free of genetic modification, and present-day techniques that allow for direct clinical alteration of a microorganism’s DNA. While the latter is what should be at the heart of the GMO debate, the inclusion of both traditional and modern approaches in this debate has obscured the issues.

Equally important to those who argue for GMOs is the notion that not a single study has been published that has proven that GMOs carry health risks for consumers. Undeniably, many studies have been published that only highlight the health and environmental benefits of GMOs. There is almost universal consensus that there is no link between GMOs and such human health concerns as gene mutations, interference with organ health and function, transference of genes from GMOs to consumers, and negative effects on fertility, pregnancy, or human offspring.

Equally important to those who argue for GMOs is the notion that not a single study has been published that has proven that GMOs carry health risks for consumers.

On the other hand, those who oppose GMOs do so based on these health concerns, even though no studies have explicitly linked health complications to GMOs. They point to the fact that the safety of GMOs is an ongoing area of research, and it is not necessarily possible to prove beyond doubt that these products are safe for consumption, as new findings and insights may emerge over time. In general, the safety assessment of GMOs involves a range of studies and data collection activities, including toxicological studies, allergenicity studies, and environmental risk assessments. These studies can take a significant amount of time to complete, as they often involve long-term monitoring and data collection. Furthermore, no human participants were studied in any of the published studies due to ethical concerns, and one wonders whether these studies will stand the test of time given that some health complications, such as cancer, can take decades to manifest in humans. The question of who funds the studies also comes up during these debates, and some have wondered if it isn’t a case of “he who pays the piper calls the tune.”

The prohibition of independently-funded research on current GMO technology has also been raised in the debates. In his article Companies Put Restrictions On Research into GM Crops, Bruce Stutz highlights the frustrations that independent public researchers encountered in their quest to study GM seeds. Although they were later granted more freedom, they wondered if the move would change the course of research at all, or at least bring change to a GMO research  environment that is fraught with obstacles and suspicions.

The prohibition of independently-funded research on current GMO technology has also been raised in the debates.

There is a general belief that the person who feeds you has power over you. And since food security is considered a matter of national security, whoever controls your food production systems has your national security in their hands. For most opponents of the introduction of GM foods, the need to preserve local food production systems is perhaps the most pressing concern. In 2003 already, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted that intellectual property rights and patenting would cause problems. Although these protect technology owners by enabling them to benefit from their innovations, they create food dependencies—or what some have termed “food colonialism”—because farmers are required by contract to not save seeds for future planting and to instead purchase them from the GM firms. This creates a kind of global monopoly over agricultural food production and distribution that contrasts with conventional seed propagation methods where plants and seeds belong to everyone as a human right.

According to the FAO, smallholder farmers provide roughly 80 per cent of the food in Africa and in Asia. In Kenya, they account for 75 per cent of the total agricultural output. Furthermore, agriculture in general provides a source of income for smallholder farmer households. The feared uncertainties and lack of control for the farmers therefore portend a possible destabilization of household incomes, and by extension, a great challenge to the adoption of GMO technology.

Concerns have also been raised regarding GMO seeds developed through “genetic reuse restricted technology”, which also aims to limit the use of GMOs by activating or deactivating specific genes in such a way that second-generation seeds are rendered infertile. It was feared that GMO crops would transmit the non-regenerative trait to other organic crops through cross-pollination, putting non-GMO farmers at risk of losing control over their own crops. In addition, the use of a diverse crop mix is said to aid sustainability and biodiversity, both in terms of crop protection and the societal values placed on food. It is feared that GM seeds could potentially harm the many different indigenous varieties that smallholder farmers in particular cultivate.

The negative effects of GMOs do not end with farmers losing control over their crops. GMOs also have the potential to impact on exports of agricultural products to other markets and thus a country’s foreign earnings. Horticulture exports are one of Kenya’s main sources of foreign income. Indeed, by the end of 2021, the sector had become the country’s largest foreign exchange earner, generating KSh157 billion, up from KSh150.6 billion the previous year. Europe is Kenya’s main importer of horticultural products, accounting for 45 per cent of the country’s horticultural exports. The EU, on the other hand, strictly controls the entry of GMO products into its market and employs the precautionary principle via a three-pillar regulatory framework that includes pre-market authorization based on a prior risk assessment, traceability, and labelling. It is not surprising, then, that the lifting of the GMO importation ban in Kenya has alarmed EU buyers of horticultural products, and Kenyan exporters are now required to undergo additional certification to ensure that products shipped by them contain no traces of GMOs.

In contrast to GMOs as a solution to Kenya’s food problems, a careful look at issues affecting agriculture in Kenya suggests that technology may play a significant role in food production. Several studies conducted in Africa highlight under-mechanization and a lack of innovation as the main challenges confronting agricultural systems and thus food production. Farm work has become associated with toil, making it unappealing to the most productive segments of the population. Nevertheless, there has been progress in the mechanization of some processes along the value chain, as well as improvements in access to farm inputs, funding, markets, and digital agricultural services.

Farm work has become associated with toil, making it unappealing to the most productive segments of the population.

On the whole, Kenya’s food security situation is undeniably deficient. Many gaps exist in the food production systems, affecting sufficiency and exposing a significant portion of the population to hunger and malnutrition. Hence, in light of the above discussions and ongoing debates among Kenyans, Kenya’s food systems—no doubt like those of most African nations—require restructuring. They lack the resilience to withstand major shocks such as droughts caused by climate change, among other things, leaving Kenya extremely food insecure. The country lags behind in even the most basic agricultural innovations, such as irrigation, good input practices and technologies, market access information, aggregation and seamless logistics, innovative financing for smallholder farmers, post-harvest loss mitigation, and the adoption of local food varieties that are drought resistant, among others. As a result, while GMO is a modern technology, it is not what Kenya requires right now unless it is a quantum leap. The country has not yet applied all the technological solutions at its disposal. Is it any wonder then that most authoritative voices in Kenya’s agricultural sector have called for innovation, the empowerment of smallholder farmers, and their inclusion at the centre of food production as a way of alleviating the country’s food insecurity rather than advocating for the adoption of GMOs?

In this context, it appears that any significant agricultural innovations for Kenya—and by extension, Africa—will be those that take into account the role of smallholder farmers and the importance for them to have control over the innovations, as well as the conservation of existing food production systems, thereby enhancing food security as well as the protection of household incomes and livelihoods. In any case, the problems with Kenya’s food systems are primarily leadership-related, and unless this is addressed, GMO technology will be similarly mismanaged.

Finally, there are legitimate concerns as well as misinformation regarding GMOs, and their adoption will continue to be hampered as long as the fears are not allayed and the misinformation dispelled. Before pushing for GMO adoption, perhaps GMO-adopting countries should be allowed to conduct independent research and publicize the results. Furthermore, questions must be asked about whether GMOs are the solution to Kenya’s food problems and, if so, whether the right questions about the country’s food systems were raised before adopting GMOs as the solution.