GM Crops Won’t Fix Kenya’s Food Deficit

From the Curator’s Desk

This week’s newsletter is continuing the tradition of inviting members of our community to write From The Curator’s Desk, and for this edition, I’m happy to hand it over to Njuguna Kiuna, who is a writer and a strong believer in the human capacity to bring change and create impact.

Please send your guest writing pitches for this section to rose@barazalab.com if you’re interested in writing this section and you have something of interest to share to our community — a trend you’ve noticed or something you’d like us to think about. (Baraza Curator Christine Mungai is away on extended leave).

~ The Baraza Team

GM crops won’t fix Kenya’s food deficit

By: Njuguna Kiuna

So. Kenya has officially lifted the ban on the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops setting off stormy debate about the pros and cons of the decision. The ban on cultivation of genetically modified organisms, GMOs had been in force from  2012 until the 3rd October 2022 announcement. 

The government insists that it is guided by the scientific opinion of the Taskforce to Review Matters Relating to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Safety and that its sole aim is to safeguard national food security.

There is no doubt that Kenya has a food deficit that it must address. But GM crops are not the answer. 

I will let the scientists talk about the health and genetics of it and limit myself to the politics of the decision and its possible outcomes.

Food autonomy is a big concern given the well-documented predatory business practices of corporations pushing for the use of GM seeds and technologies under their control. The former giant agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company, Monsanto which is now a subsidiary of Bayer AG, the best known of these organizations, holds over 1700 seed patents as well as production control of the chemical pesticides needed to grow them. Can Kenya claim food security when production of its staple food depends on supplies from a foreign company? Biotech seed companies are known to strong-arm countries to enforce their patents including criminalizing the reuse of seeds kept from previous farming seasons in Burkina Faso, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

GM cotton production in Burkina Faso failed. The genetically modified Bollgard II seed introduced in the country 2008 by Monsanto produced an abundant harvest of pest-free cotton and by 2015 dominated production. But while volume grew, quality fell and in 2017 Burkina Faso abandoned the GM varieties but still had to pay Monsanto royalties to avoid a court case; the corporation has sued thousands of farmers across the world for breach of contract. 

Secondly, GMO crop production is synonymous with large-scale farming. GM crops require extensive supportive systems to thrive and this must be bolstered by acceptability to cultural, social, historical and ecological circumstances for success. Viable farming depends on increased fertilizer use – which many Kenyan farmers can’t always access – and frequent precise weeding regimens for maize varieties such as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). In Uganda, the M9 banana variety was introduced to combat the banana bacterial wilt disease that causes upwards of $500m in losses. However, consumers rejected it due to its increased care routine and fertilizer use and the difficulties during mashing that make it undesirable. 

Then there is the issue of food diversity. What happens to our bank of indigenous seeds and traditional routines of sharing seed between Kenyan farmers is forever disrupted? There is also the increased use of specific pesticides that must be used for GM crop production such as glyphosate. These are toxic to bee colonies and other and pollinators, fish, birds and soil organisms that are critical to our vibrant food diversity.

Kenya now risks shaking its regional political and trade standing within the East African Community and across Africa over this latest decision. South Africa, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and now Kenya are the only countries in Africa embracing GM crop cultivation. Globally 24 of the world’s 195 countries have accepted cultivation of GMOs. Tanzania’s agriculture minister announced increased vigilance soon after the Kenyan announcement disrupting trade and business negotiations across the EAC and pushing back regional integration efforts aimed at crafting common policies as countries absorb the implications of Kenya’s decision and seek to protect their populations from GM products. 

GM crops won’t solve the country’s food shortage because Kenya does not have a seed problem. In past years bounty harvests have been followed by massive post-harvest loss due to absence of transport and marketing structures, poor pricing, lack of information for farmers, poor storage and absence of post production processing. Our scientists have developed local hybrid seeds and farming knowledge that is yet to reach farmers. We leave large tracts of our most productive farmland idle and have not rationalized water use. The prohibitive cost of fertilizer and farm inputs has been a yearly complaint blamed on corruption in the agricultural value chain. None of this has to do with seed quality. 

Attempts to control indigenous food production have a long history dating from the colonial times when British colonists pushed Kenyan farmers off their land to pave way for commercial crop production. The decisions that have followed thereafter have buttressed the reliance on food aid and imports entrenching new forms of imperialism. 

Introducing GM crops is nothing more than a promissory note that may not pay. It would be best to halt this decision, and instead critically consider the real issues that have dogged food production since independence.

***

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading: Stories about wildlife killed to serve the interests of human beings are unfortunately too common. But could there really be a case of humans, eliminating humans in the name of the environment? Are members of a minority forest tribe being wiped out to preserve a unique ecosystem and UNESCO listed wildlife habitat? Read about the political intrigues and why local researchers have  left it to their German colleague to investigate and publish the story Murder claims grip world-famous gorilla park in the DRC.

What We’re Watching: Finding my father: More than 30 percent of Kenyans grow up in single parent homes, a situation that the immediate former President Uhuru Kenyatta said is likely to have profound impacts on our society in future. Nairobi-based journalist Nabukabo Werungah counts herself among this number. With a milestone event ahead of her, she set out to try and answer the many questions that have followed her through the years and to find the father she had grown up without knowing. This edition of BBC Africa Eye documents that journey.

What We’re Listening To: Can you teach entrepreneurship? All over the continent African governments have rolled out entrepreneurship programs – particularly targeting farmers, young people and women – in the belief that this will help to equip them to start and run small businesses that are the back-bone of African economies. But are entrepreneurs made or born? That is the question put to three guests on the podcast Limitless. Three perspectives that sometimes collide and will leave you questioning what you thought you knew.

 

As always, 

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab


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