by Dave Opiyo
July 12, 2011
The spectre of people developing new and strange allergies, indigenous seeds losing their genetic codes and disappearing altogether, farmers making bumper harvests — or no harvests at all — is in the air.
Two weeks ago on July 1, Kenya became the fourth African nation to permit imports of GMO crops, joining South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso.
Supporters of the move say it is essential in helping to stabilise prices and feed millions of hungry Kenyans, but matters are not that straightforward.
The online encyclopedia Wikipedia defines a genetically modified or genetically engineered organism (GEO) as one “whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.”
These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, explains the encyclopaedia, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are then combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes.
This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, adds Wikipedia, are a subset of GMO organisms which have DNA that originated in a different species.
To put it more clearly, think of an orange with tomato genes. The coming into force of the Bio-Safety Act, 2009 on July 1 that allows the growing and sale of genetically modified crops has elicited mixed reactions.
GMOs are modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content.
But, as expected, anti-GMO lobbyists have kicked up a storm, saying the safety of genetically engineered crops has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
“The developers of GMOs have exerted great pressure to ensure that the Bio-Safety Act serves the interests of foreign agribusiness, rather than farmers and consumers,” Ms Anne Maina, an advocacy coordinator for African Biodiversity Network (ABN), says.
Recently, anti-GMO lobbyists, mainly from the ABN, Unga Revolution and Bunge La Mwananchi, protested the move, urging the government to revoke it.
On May 25, Jeffrey Smith, who describes himself as a “consumer advocate promoting healthier, non-GMO choices”, argued in a blog:
“When US regulators approved Monsanto’s genetically modified “BT” corn, they knew it would add a deadly poison into our food supply. That’s what it was designed to do.
“The corn’s DNA is equipped with a gene from soil bacteria called BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis) that produces the BT-toxin.
“It’s a pesticide; it breaks open the stomach of certain insects and kills them.” Monsanto is a market leader in bio-technology and production of GMOs.
According to the blogger, Monsanto and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) swore up and down that it was only insects that would be hurt.
The BT-toxin, they claimed, would be destroyed in the human digestive system and not have any impact on all of the trusting, corn-eating consumers.
“Now,” he continued, “doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found the corn’s BT-toxin in the blood of pregnant women and their babies, as well as in non-pregnant women.”
This is one of the many fights in Monsanto’s hands. In its website, the firm says food derived from authorised genetically-modified (GM) crops is as safe as the conventional (non-GM-derived) version.
Putting the matter into perspective, Monsanto says the first large acreage plantings of GM crops — herbicide-tolerant soybeans and canola — took place in 1996 after successfully passing US regulatory review.
Since then, additional GM crops with herbicide tolerance, insect tolerance and virus resistance have been given clearance for planting and consumption.
These include varieties of corn, sugar beets, squash and papaya. All of these crops have been assessed for food and feed safety in producing countries, “and many more countries have approved the import of food or food ingredients that contain GM products”.
Hundreds of millions of meals containing food from GM crops have been consumed. There has not been a single substantiated instance of illness or harm associated with GM crops, the company argues.
According to Monsanto, some of the negative health effects associated with GMOs could be caused by other considerations.
In one response, it says: “There has been an increased interest in food allergies. Unfortunately, there are no stable diagnostic criteria for testing for food allergies and food intolerance.
“Together, these two factors have probably resulted in an increase in reporting of allergies. Therefore, rates of allergies may not have actually increased as much as it would appear.”
Implications on health
Such is the nature of the GMO controversy Kenyans will soon find themselves embroiled in. Anti-GMO groups say scientific evidence has shown that continued consumption of GM food is likely to have serious implications on not only health, but also the environment and food production.
Studies such as the one by Sherbrooke University Hospital have shown that those who eat genetically modified foods tend to see an increase in their allergic reactions to the types of foods they are already allergic.
Further, by eating these genetically modified foods, people also form allergies to foods which they were never allergic to before.
Naturally, Monsanto refutes such findings with its own, sometimes poking holes on the research methodology and the findings by its critics.
In lab tests done on animals, there were cases where once the animals ingested genetically modified food, they became completely sterile in a matter of weeks.
In other cases, experimental animals died in a matter of weeks of liver, kidney and pancreatic complications. But that’s one side of the story.
The University of Nairobi’s Centre for Biotechnology and Bio-informatics Director, Prof James Opiyo Ochanda, was quoted in the Business Daily recently as saying that the use of GMOs could be beneficial to Kenya’s attainment of food security because genetically engineered crops are resistant to pests and diseases that often require expensive and harmful chemicals to eradicate.
“Instead of applying chemicals, scientists have engineered the plants to introduce genes or molecules that allow the crop to protect itself.
This is better than the application of chemicals that pollute the environment and harm the body, thus posing dangers to our systems,” he said.
Similar remarks were also made by Prof Samuel Gudu, a plant breeding specialist and Moi University’s Deputy Vice chancellor in-charge of planning and development.
In an interview with the same paper, Prof Gudu reckons that GM technology could help Kenya increase the production of key crops such as maize.
“GMOs are meant to improve the quality of maize. They can protect the crop against insects and what Kenyans should be asking for are the details of the consignment to be brought in as opposed to fear-mongering,” he says.
However, increasing yields and food safety are come at a risk, as the Sherbrooke University Hospital findings show.
And, as the debate rages, the National Bio-Safety Authority (NBA), which is tasked with ensuring that GMOs imported into Kenya are safe both to human beings and the environment, has called for caution.
“Propaganda should not be used as justification as to whether to accept or deny individuals from using GMOs in the country…. We are solely relying on scientific facts,” says NBA chair Prof Miriam Kinyua.
“We have to make sure that what is brought into the country is safe. By doing so, we have to ensure that the risk assessment is well done scientifically,” adds Prof Kinyua, who is also a lecturer at Moi University’s Department of Biotechnology.
“If the importer proves to us that the GMO is good, we approve it and inform the public of the same. If we have reservations because of some findings, we shall say ‘Sorry’.”
According to the Bio-Safety Act, the regulatory authority will communicate its final decision of approval or rejection of an importing license after three months of receiving the application.
After allowing an importer to place a genetically modified organism on the market, the law also allows any person to submit a written opposition within 30 days from the date the notice is posted.
Organisations and individuals opposed to the importation of GMOs will most likely seize this opportunity.
“Is Kenya ready for GMOs?” we asked Prof Kinyua, and she curtly replied that the fact that the government had created a specialised institution and “put in place systems means that we are moving somewhere”.
But “moving somewhere” certainly doesn’t mean full capacity. According to Prof Kinyua, the authority is yet to publish regulations that will guide the process, but that will be done soon.
How will the authority ensure that GM seeds don’t end up in the stomach unprocessed — or the shamba, because Kenyans tend to eat what they grow?
Dr Roy Mugiira, the acting head of the National Bio-Safety Authority, says millers licensed to import genetically modified maize must ensure that this does not happen to avoid the possibility of anybody planting them as seeds. A tall order, this one.
Any lapse on their part that could allow the seeds to be planted will lead to a fine of more than Sh20 million or 10-year prison terms or both. If this happens unintentionally, they will have to meet the cost of removing such seeds from circulation.
According to Dr Mugiira, one of the options being considered is to have the maize milled at the point of landing and then transported as flour, hence avoiding any deliberate or accidental escaping of seeds.
GMO seeds, just like conventional maize, have the capacity to germinate and produce.
Initially, bio-technology firms sterilised GM seeds to forestall germination; but the technology, called terminator, was never commercialised following widespread opposition.
The maize being targeted by the millers has been engineered to develop resistance against weeds and pests.
Another type of GM maize is being tested in Kenya for drought resistance, but it is not yet ready for commercialisation.
If the current bio-safety laws are to be followed strictly, then the earliest the first GM maize can land in to the country legally is around October.
In 2008, The Daily Mail published a story to validate a claim by Prince Charles that Indian farmers were killing themselves after the improved yields promised by a bio-technology firm failed, therefore ruining the farmers economically.
Some had borrowed heavily. A farmer, Shankara Mandaukar, couldn’t take it anymore when a promised unheard-of-harvest turned into two crop failures after he abandoned indigenous seeds.
“Ranged against the Prince” reported the papers, “are powerful GM lobbyists and prominent politicians, who claim that genetically modified crops have transformed Indian agriculture, providing greater yields than ever before.”
“However”, wrote the paper, “official figures from the Indian Ministry of Agriculture do indeed confirm that, in a huge humanitarian crisis, more than 1,000 farmers kill themselves here every month.
“It seems many are massively in debt to local money-lenders, having over-borrowed to purchase GM seed.”
Pro-GM experts blamed the suicides on rural poverty, alcoholism, drought and ‘agrarian distress’.
Back to Monsanto, the bio-technology market leader says claims from anti-biotechnology activists that genetically-modified crops don’t increase yields, and that GM crops actually have lower yields than non-GM ones are simply false.
“In agriculture, desirable crop characteristics are known as traits. One of the most important traits is yield.
“Improving crop yield can be accomplished through both breeding and bio-technology. GM crops generally have higher yields due to both breeding and bio-technology,” explains Monsanto.
True, but Indian farmers will tell you of the other side of increased yields.