GMOs in Kenya: Frequently Asked Questions
Answering your questions on what GMOs are, their impact on food security...And GMOs around the world, in Africa and Kenya
Part 1: Frequently Asked Questions
The Kenyan government has lifted a ten-year ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Kenyans on Twitter supported or criticized the move, but most were looking for answers. Part 1 below is a summary of the questions I compiled from the Kenyan Twittersphere and answers. Watch out for Part 2, which zooms out and discusses GMOs from a food politics, insecurity and sovereignty angle.
1. What are GMOs?
GMOs refer to genetically modified organisms. Specifically, organisms are said to be GMOs if they have the DNA from another organism. The DNA from the source organism is extracted and incorporated into the receiving organism, making it [the receiving organism] genetically modified.
2. Why GMOs?
We genetically modify organisms to improve or give them desirable characteristics. For example, crops that mature faster, are not attacked by pests, are not perishable, produce more, or are more nutritious. To make this happen, we identify a gene capable of doing this from any other organism and incorporate it into the receiving organism.
3. How are GMOs made?
Let’s take the example of a Bt-Cotton that Kenya will be growing. In full, the ‘Bt’ in Bt-Cotton is Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacteria. B. thuringiensis produces a protein that is toxic to insects, which means it can be used as an insecticide. '
Brilliant scientists figured out they can extract the toxic bacterial protein to control plant pests. In fact, it is currently in use as a pesticide, even in organic farming. Farmers use it in spray or granule form applying it to the crops directly to manage pests including insects and nematodes.
Even more brilliant scientists thought instead of applying the Bt toxin as a pesticide, why not make the plant its own insecticide? They extracted the gene responsible for making the toxic protein from the bacteria, and incorporate it into the cotton. The cotton plant becomes toxic to any insect that feeds on its leaves seemingly without harming other plants or animals. This saves time and resources as farmers do not need to buy insecticides. Quite innovative, right?
So think of this process as the silver bullet for all problems in the world. Maize crops yielding small cobs? Let’s introduce a gene that makes it grow bigger. Tomatoes perishing too fast after harvest? Let’s incorporate a gene that will make them never over-ripen. People dying of malnutrition? Let’s incorporate a gene that manufactures vitamins and antioxidants into their staple diets such as wheat, rice, or maize. Trouble with getting people vaccinated? Put the vaccine-making gene of the bacteria into bananas. Have it in mind that while the above examples are of crops, animals can be genetically modified too. Same way, same motivations, and benefits.
To be honest, genetic modification is actually a genius idea on paper. So what’s the problem?
4. What are the risks of GMOs?
Real and valid concerns about the impact of GMOs on food, health, and the environment dominate the conversation against GMOs. They include the consequences of allowing a few multinationals to patent and own seeds, the effect of introducing mixing up genetic material from other organisms and potential side effects on the environment including biodiversity.
The last 200 years has seen a shift in the human diet from agricultural semi-processed to ultra-processed foods without a change in our genetic make up or that of the microorganisms that live within us. Scientists have implicated these diets in causing inflammation which is the precursor to the many chronic illnesses affecting us today. Humans have evolved as their environment and diets have changed over the last few million years. However, in the last thousand years or so, our diets and environment have changed faster than our genes have. Thus, in the same way, GMO foods are likely to affect us and our environment, in ways we do not know yet.
5. What about hybrids? or biofortification?
Hybrids are made through the cross-breeding of two parents with superior characteristics. Unlike GMOs whose changes are done through gene splicing, hybrids are changed through pollination by hand or in controlled environments. The key difference between hybrids and GMOs is the source of the new genetic material. For hybrids, the source is a closely-related plant, for GMOs, it can be another plant, or any other organism with the target gene.
Biofortification is an intervention to improve the nutrition content of staple foods and deliver micronutrients particularly to populations without access to diverse diets or supplements. Biofortification is different from fortification, the latter involves adding the nutrients at the processing stage (e.g maize flour fortified with vitamin E). Biofortification involves breeding nutrients in crops either via selective breeding or genetic modification. For example, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock research Organization (KALRO) developed a bean variety called Nyota, biofortified with zinc and iron.
6. Are we already consuming/growing GMOs in Kenya?
Yes. The National Biosafety Authority gave the go-ahead to cultivate GM - cassava openly in Kenya in 2021. The cassava is resistant to a common cassava viral disease and was released after five years of testing in confined field trials. Other crops in the pipeline were maize and sorghum, although open field cultivation was not allowed until the most government recent directive in October 2022. Locally available products such as soft drinks or food aid made from imported maize or soy products are likely to be genetically modified. The corn-soy blends are used in food aid products and high fructose corn syrup is used as a sweetener in soft drinks. Both are made from genetically modified soy and/or maize.
7. Label GMOs to give consumers a choice, would it work?
Probably, but not in Kenya. Our agriculture value chains do not work like that. Imagine you are at Mama Mboga grocery shop asking for non-GMO tomatoes.
8. Is GM food cheaper than organic food?
Yes, but may not the case in Kenya. Again, the agriculture value chains in Kenya are quite different. Between the farmer and the consumer, there are several brokers and middlemen and women, who determine the cost of food. They are a big problem when it comes to the value farmers get, but are play a critical role in the ecosystem.
9. Is it tampering with Mother Nature?
Yes, but when have humans not tampered with Mother Nature? The very concept of agriculture is tampering with nature. We evolved as hunters and gatherers, but as food got farther and farther away, we learned how to domesticate crops and livestock.
Plant breeding has modified what were once wild crops or weeds to the foods we have today - from seedless bananas (bananas had seeds, eww!), to maize, wheat and other cereals. In selective breeding, farmers, over thousands of years, identified and bred plants with the most-desirable charasteristics - bigger fruits, fewer seeds, larger yields, giving the foods we have today.
Genetic modification takes the process of selective breeding further by making it faster, bigger and better. A world population of 10 billion by 2050, in a rapidly changing climate, will need to get creative to feed itself.
10. Are GMOs absolutely necessary?
No, despite the points raised above under Question 18. GMOs are the easier route to provide food for the world population. The other path is much more difficult, is lengthy, and will require us to make sacrifices including what we eat, how corporations work, our beloved economic and financial systems, values, and policies. a lot of people are not able or willing to let go, yet.
11. How do the United States and European Union produce and regulate GMOs?
The United States makes a long list of genetically modified crops - soy, maize (corn), pink pineapples, potato, papaya, cotton and some types of farmed salmon. Most of the GM crops are grown for animal feed. Growth and sale of GM foods are regulated by their environment protection agency, Department of Agriculture and the FDA. Foods that have a genetically modified or engineered component are appropriately labeled. In the European Union, only one GM crop is grown - a variety of bioengineered maize. However, other GM foods are bought and sold (labeled and traceable), although there are calls for total ban.
12. What have other African countries experienced?
Nigeria grows Bt Cotton and Bt Cowpea. South Africa was one of the earliest adopters growing Bt-maize, Bt- and Ht-(herbicide tolerant) cotton and Ht-soybean. South Africa grows GM maize in 81% of the 2.5 million hectares under maize crop. Sudan grows Bt Cotton in 80% of 109,000 hectares. Burkina Faso also grew Bt Cotton in 74% of a total area of 648,000 hecatares. Research from South Africa shows
13. Will GMOs give Africa the Green Revolution she desires?
No. The challenges facing agriculture in many African countries range from poor seeds, low quality production, inputs, logistics and transport challenges and climate change. Genetic modification may help with some of these issues including seed, better adaptable crop varieties and crops that require fewer inputs but will not address system-wide problems.
14. Will GMOs solve food insecurity in Kenya?
No. On the surface, GMOs should solve food insecurity in Kenya. If we genetically modified crops to mature faster, produce more, and become drought tolerant. They will also lower the cost of feeds, making products such as milk and eggs more affordable. However, GMOs do not address other issues in the value chain including transport and logistics challenges, accessibility, and affordability of food. Introducing better-yielding crops without resolving these underlying systemic challenges is akin to wearing clean clothes without showering first.
15. How might GMOs affect local farmers and their livelihoods?
Over 70% of farmers in Kenya are smallholders.
16. Will GMO foods in Kenya affect the ability of the country to export agricultural produce to other countries?
Probably. Tanzania has already declared that she will impose stronger measures to control GM food or cash crops from getting into her borders. Its likely that other countries will follow suit. We can only hope that guilty by association will not affect our other export crops including coffee, tea or cut flowers.
17. Will KARLO be developing our GM seeds?
Probably not. While KARLO and other agriculture research institutions have made significant progress in biotechnology, it is not likely they have the expertise or equipment to develop GMOs.
18. What GMOs will Kenya be importing?
As of now, Bt Cotton, in Western Kenya (although the area has immense potential for food crops instead). It is not clear what else will be brought in but because the government presser did not specify, we can assume everything is free to import.
19. Will importers be free to import other GM Foods
20. Should we be worried about patented seeds and the influence of multinational corporations (MNCs) in our agriculture?
Yes. Many Kenyans on Twitter cite the Monsanto lawsuits against small scale farmers for seed patent infrigement as a warning to what might happen in Kenya if we allow GM seeds. Public-Private Partnerships with MNCs to develop GM technology have been described as “house of cards,” because they benefit the MNCs not the individual country as seen in the cases of Ghana and Burkina Faso. Both the agriculture and food industries in Africa are particularly vulnerable to both pro- amd anti-GMOs movements from the West as well as influence from MNCs and NGOs due to the funding they generate. Additionally, there is a global trend of commodification and financialization of natural including water, land, seeds and food, making them patenteable or tradeable. We should all be aware about these influences, especially when making policies and decisions about the future of agriculture and food in Africa.
21. Is there a way to a better way to introduce GMOs in Kenya?
Yes, by employing an extremely conservative approach. Ultimately, GM-supported agriculture is inevitable mostly due to climate change and increasing population particularly in Africa. My hope is we use GMOs as a last resort and continue studying, assessing and adjusting to potential negative effects of GM technology. As we do that, here is how Kenya can introduce GM crops:
Fix other challenges in the agricultural value chain including transport and logistics. GMOs will not fix all issues in agriculture
Demand-driven approach. Build solutions based on farmers’ most pressing needs
If genetic modification is a proposed solution, pilot in controlled environments among large scale holdings
Have a clear value chain for GM crops
Regulate, regulate, regulate. Prevent it from becoming another get-rich-scheme for brokers who can easily manipulate the value chain
Develop the GM technology internally where possible
Collaborate with the East Africa Community to pool together resources, equipment, skills, funding, regulation and the market
Have more questions? Post them below in the comments section. Learned something from this article? Consider donating to our Urban Mboga Farm project.
On point no 7. Kenyans will put an "organic" label on anything if it fetches more money and cant be verified.
A great read!
Consider discussing the effects of Glyphosate in GMO's as it plays a big role in the GM-Process and how it can possibly affect human health.