Good crop, bad crop

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Kenya’s ban on im­ports of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) crops re­flects a trou­bling trend in a coun­try tra­di­tion­ally seen as an agri­cul­tural in­no­va­tor. The move also rep­re­sents a gi­ant leap back­ward for a con­ti­nent that of­ten strug­gles to en­sure its own food se­cu­rity. A ra­tio­nal, sci­en­tific ap­proach must tri­umph over prej­u­dice, fear, and spec­u­la­tion. And Kenya can lead the way.

GM crops (also called ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered or biotech­nol­ogy crops) have re­peat­edly been proven to be safe, and are used suc­cess­fully to boost agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity world­wide. But bu­reau­cracy, pro­pa­ganda and mis­in­for­ma­tion are pre­vent­ing mil­lions of African farm­ers, in­clud­ing in Kenya, from ac­cess­ing a tech­nol­ogy that can im­prove liveli­hoods and help to re­dress food short­ages.

More than one mil­lion Kenyans cur­rently rely on food aid as a re­sult of the coun­try’s ce­real short­fall. The coun­try’s Famine Early Warn­ing Sys­tems Net­work notes that al­ready­high maize prices will con­tinue to rise un­til the end of the year, fur­ther strain­ing food se­cu­rity and eco­nomic per­for­mance. As Kenya strug­gles to feed its peo­ple and sta­bilise its econ­omy, GM tech­nol­ogy should be a wel­come means to in­crease yields and in­comes, ben­e­fit­ing farm­ers, con­sumers, and the en­vi­ron­ment.

The few African coun­tries that do grow GM crops have reaped sig­nif­i­cant re­wards. The in­tro­duc­tion of GM maize, soy­bean, and cot­ton in South Africa, for ex­am­ple, helped raise farm­ers’ in­comes by more than $1 bln from 1998 to 2012. This was largely the re­sult of GM maize va­ri­eties, which in­creased an­nual yields by 32%, and now rep­re­sent nearly 90% of the coun­try’s maize crop. In­deed, de­spite soar­ing out­put, South Africa still can­not ex­port enough maize to keep pace with global de­mand.

Sim­i­larly, Burk­ina Faso’s farm­ers now grow a GM cot­ton va­ri­ety that nat­u­rally re­sists a de­struc­tive in­sect, and thus re­quires less ex­pen­sive pes­ti­cides. The switch from tra­di­tional cot­ton to the GM va­ri­ety has helped in­crease yields by more than 18%, earn­ing farm­ers $61 more per hectare and rais­ing $1.2 bln in agri­cul­tural rev­enues in 2013 alone.

As an agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy pi­o­neer, Kenya’s farm­ers would un­doubt­edly en­joy sim­i­lar re­turns. Three-quarters of Kenya’s food is grown by small-scale farm­ers – the type that pro­duce more than 90% of the world’s GM crops. Kenyans are al­ready ex­pected to ben­e­fit enor­mously from new GM va­ri­eties, such as in­sect-resistant maize, that are be­ing de­vel­oped by lo­cal sci­en­tists.

More­over, Kenya is one of the few African coun­tries with a ro­bust reg­u­la­tory frame­work that can re­view and ap­prove new crop va­ri­eties. Kenya’s 2009 Biosafety Act es­tab­lished the Na­tional Biosafety Au­thor­ity (NBA), one of the first such bod­ies on the con­ti­nent. Yet, de­spite early ad­vances in the field, Kenya’s bat­tle for GM crops has been un­nec­es­sar­ily po­lit­i­cal. In 2012, the cab­i­net banned GM crop im­ports with­out even con­sult­ing the NBA, a decision based on a widely de­nounced, and since-re­tracted, study that falsely linked GM foods with can­cer.

More re­cently, Kenya’s gov­ern­ment ap­pointed a spe­cial task­force to in­ves­ti­gate biotech­nol­ogy. Its find­ings have not yet been made pub­lic, but anti-GM com­ments by the task­force’s chair sug­gest fur­ther con­fu­sion on the is­sue, threat­en­ing to leave farm­ers, sci­en­tists, and the pub­lic in limbo at a time when GM crops are most needed.

A clear op­por­tu­nity to feed the pop­u­la­tion is be­ing squan­dered as a re­sult of pol­i­tics and bu­reau­cracy, and Kenya, un­for­tu­nately, is not alone in Africa in this re­gard. Badly needed biosafety leg­is­la­tion in Nige­ria and Uganda, for ex­am­ple, has al­ready been de­layed.

Much of the prob­lem lies with a small group of anti-GM ac­tivists who ob­ject to the tech­nol­ogy on “moral” grounds. They typ­i­cally claim that GM crops are un­safe – a view flatly re­jected by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity over the last two decades. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion has also con­firmed that “no ef­fects on hu­man health have been shown as a re­sult of the con­sump­tion of such foods.” In­deed, ev­ery new GM crop va­ri­ety must meet rig­or­ous health, en­vi­ron­men­tal, and ef­fi­cacy stan­dards.

Although per­haps well in­ten­tioned, th­ese ac­tivists, to­gether with a few mis­in­formed pol­i­cy­mak­ers, are set­ting back agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy and pro­duc­tiv­ity across Africa. To be sure, GM crops are no panacea, but they are an im­por­tant tool in achiev­ing food se­cu­rity and eco­nomic pros­per­ity.

That is why de­ci­sions about the health and safety of new crop va­ri­eties should be based on sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, not driven by po­lit­i­cal wran­gling and base­less “moral” ar­gu­ments. By tak­ing an ev­i­dence-based ap­proach to pol­i­cy­mak­ing, Kenya’s au­thor­i­ties can im­prove mil­lions of lives at home and set an in­valu­able prece­dent for the whole con­ti­nent.

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