FEATURE: Kenya’s legalization of GM crops divides small-holder farmers

Kenya has lifted a ban on genetically modified crops in response the worst drought to affect the East African region in 40 years, with authorities hoping it will improve crop yields and food security.

Kenya lifted a ban on genetically modified crops in response the worst drought to affect the East African region in 40 years, with authorities hoping it will improve crop yields and food security.

NAIROBI, Dec. 9 (Xinhua) — Andrew Ndegwa, a farmer from a remote village in central Kenya, first heard fragmented details of genetically modified (GM) crops in 2012 when the country effectively banned their cultivation.

Ndegwa said the information he gathered was alarming enough to develop an uncompromising stance against GM crops like maize and potatoes. “Around that time, the government said it feared these crops would be injurious to our health. And I believed it,” he told Xinhua during a recent phone interview. “So when our new government lifted the ban the other day and spoke about importing 10 million bags of GM maize, it brought past fears to the fore,” he said. In recent weeks, citizens of eastern Africa’s economic powerhouse have engaged earnestly and relentlessly in a debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The fierce debates pitting proponents and opponents of GMOs had been precipitated by an October state declaration to vacate a ban on their cultivation, importation, and commercialization. This was followed by a directive that has since been quashed by the courts to import 10 million bags of GM maize. The ban on the cultivation, distribution, and commercialization of GM crops was first instituted in 2012 on the grounds of a French study that linked them with cancer following a laboratory experiment on rats. Later the study was deemed controversial and remained heavily contested among scientists; however, Kenya retained the ban.

Ndegwa said most farmers would want to understand at length how these “new” crops will impact their practice, as most of the unpacking is happening in high-level meetings away from individuals who cultivate key staple crops. “I am lucky I went to school, so I can pick a thing or two to inform my decision. But what about the farmers deep in the villages? Who will educate them?” said Ndegwa. He lamented over low numbers of extension officers and poor channels of relaying crucial agronomic information to rural small-holder farmers. But some farmers are bullish, particularly those that have experienced the bounty of GM crops.

Caleb Mwambuni hails from the southern Kenyan county of Makueni, where commercial cultivation of biotech cotton, known as Bt cotton, is ongoing. He started planting the genetically altered cotton variety in 2020 and proudly narrated how the yield improved dramatically. “I have planted Bt cotton on 6 acres of land; my last harvest was in August when the farm yielded 10,000 kilograms as opposed to 1000 kilograms from the traditional seed,” said Mwambuni. With a far-off look, perhaps one of wistfulness, Mwambuni said the yield would have been higher had the drought not ravaged his land. Mwambuni narrated his fortune since he adopted the genetically altered seed, saying he spent less on pesticides as the new variety is resistant to the destructive African bollworm disease. The cotton farmer added that the government should enhance acceptance and adoption of GM crops by upscaling the information dissemination to producers and consumers.

According to Stephen Mugo, a retired scientist formerly working for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, GM crops are organisms that have received genetic material from a different species to improve a trait. He added that such experiments and studies are done under highly regulated environments and regulations to ensure the safety of humans, animals, and vital ecosystems. Further, he said the variety of GM maize developed in the country by the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization will reduce damage by insecticides, yield more produce, and fetch more money. Mugo’s longstanding engagement with new inventions has revealed that mass acceptance can only be won through rigorous education and practicality. “Let us grow the crops, and then Kenyans can decide whether they want it or not,” he said. Bt cotton remains the sole genetically modified crop grown commercially in Kenya; others being studied include cassava, arrowroots, and maize, where confined field trials are ongoing, pending biosafety approvals.

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