The future of Kenya’s indigenous seeds hangs in the balance with a cabinet resolution lifting a decade-old ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Lifting the ban comes at a time when Kenyan farmers have an ongoing court case challenging a law that criminalises sharing of indigenous seeds among themselves. Kenya’s agricultural sector is majorly smallholder with more than 80 per cent of all food production coming from this group.
The court case seeks to have amended the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 that criminalises selling and sharing unregistered and uncertified seeds which is common practice not only among Kenyan farmers but also across Africa.
Offenders, according to this legislation, are fined up to Ksh 1,000,000 (US$10,000) or serve a prison sentence of up to a maximum of two years. Fifteen farmers who are representing many other smallholder farmers across Kenya are calling for the amendment of these punitive seed laws.
But, as Kenya’s new administration under President William Ruto seeks to address food insecurity issues, is it possible for indigenous seeds which have been a lifeline for millions of smallholder farmers to coexist with GMOs?
From the look of things, it seems like smallholder farmers may still have a chance to be heard, if not by the courts of law, then by the courts of popular opinion.
Politics of Kenya’s indigenous seeds vs GMOs
The Azimio La Umoja (One Kenya Alliance) led by Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka has taken a stand calling on President Ruto to re-impose the ban on GMOs. The Alliance which lost the presidential election to Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) says that the lifting of the GMO ban lacked public participation. Musyoka said that if President Ruto failed to reverse the ban, then the Alliance will seek redress in the National Assembly.
A former vice president, foreign affairs minister and a long-term minister under the late President Daniel Moi, Musyoka said that on weighty matters like food security, there should be nationwide public engagement and education.
On the issue of lifting the GMO ban, Ruto’s government did not engage the public.
Musyoka appealed to President Ruto to reconsider allowing GMOs since the initiative is not sustainable to reduce food insecurity. He added that GMOs would have adverse health effects on Kenyans.
In 2012, President Mwai Kibaki’s regime banned genetically modified crops due to the threat they posed to the health of Kenyans and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in the East African nation.
The Azimio Alliance principal said that it is important to demystify the impacts of GMOs by exposing their existential threat to the country’s biodiversity and the health of the Kenyan people.
Kenya’s indigenous seeds
While the debate gathers speed, the biggest threat to Kenya’s indigenous seeds and knowledge is not the GMOs themselves but the lack of education, public participation and the very likelihood of seed monopolisation by multinationals. A classic case of the risks of seed monopoly is India where Monsanto convinced local farmers to do away with their seeds since they were not good and “primitive” as the multinational could offer them a better option.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, says that seed monopoly in India created poverty and destroyed farmers’ previous self-reliance on seeds. Dr. Vandana, a long-time activist who pushes for the liberalisation of farming says that to get farmers started, companies go to the extent of paying farmers to try their seed effectively starting seed replacement. The multinationals gradually recruit farmers finally phasing out the farmers’ own seed. This leads to local small companies selling indigenous seeds closing down since they no longer have customers. Effectively, this gives the multinational corporation a monopoly to provide seeds in the regions where they have controlled the farmers.
This could be the case in Kenya unless the Kenyan farmer is protected by law with the freedom to use their seeds as they wish. Again, the GMO policy should be anchored in law to ensure that the fears that farmers have as well as the risks that could face the ecosystems and biodiversity are mitigated.
As it is, Kenya has hybrid and heirloom seeds and now with the entry of GMOs, the market becomes confused. The confusion comes with the lack of public education on why farmers need to adopt GMOs as well as if the indigenous seeds can be grown alongside the GMOs.
This aside, there is need to understand what these seeds are.
For starters, through human intervention, GMO seeds have their genetic makeup altered. This is done by having genes from different species inserted into a plant to produce a desired set of characteristics. In this process, there are questions on ethics and the altering of plants which may be interpreted as scientists playing God.
Hybrid seeds are created when two different varieties of the same plant are cross-pollinated. In this case, pollen from the male flower is transferred to the female flower parts on a different plant. Once pollination is carried out, the ovary of the female flower begins swelling to form a fruit. The resulting seeds inside this fruit are hybrid seeds.
Usually, hybrid seeds are listed as F1 types unlike those that are open pollinated. In open pollination, the seeds are as a result of sharing pollen between two parent plants which are alike. It is in open pollination that heirloom seeds are created.
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated where insects, birds, wind, or other natural means have a critical role. The resulting seeds are regarded as “true breed” and they retain their original traits from one generation to the other. A seed variety is regarded as an heirloom if it has existed for more than 50 years.
In Kenya, there is an interesting mix of seeds which farmers need protected to ensure that their farming methods are not interrupted or interfered with.
Trade with other East African countries
With the announcement that Kenya was approving GMOs after a decade, Tanzania’s Agriculture minister was quick to announce that they would not allow any contamination of their agricultural inputs and produce by their neighbour.
This effectively means that Kenya cannot export her produce to Tanzania which could bring about a diplomatic tiff that could hamper trade between the two countries. It is with this development then that we ask, does Africa need GMO technology? Has the continent exhausted all avenues towards food security that the only remaining one to utilise is GMO tech?
Could the move be corporate engineered laying the ground to capture and monopolise food systems in Kenya, and Africa? Who are the beneficiaries of this decision? What are the effects of GMOs to human health and the environment – short term and long term?
In his briefing, Musyoka warned that lifting the GMO ban would adversely affect trade with Kenya’s neighbours since most have effected a ban on GMOs. He added that the approval of GMOs will jeopardize trade in the East African Community causing unnecessary trade restrictions.
Legally, Musyoka said that Kenya has not provided mechanisms for redress and liability in case of possible harmful effects from consumption of GMOs.
He questioned the rush to lift the ban saying it poses a grave challenge to Kenya’s health care system in the long term. Musyoka singled out the dependence of GMOs on toxic herbicides which threaten human health and the environment.
In lifting the ban on GMOs by Kenya’s Cabinet in a meeting chaired by President Ruto, a statement from the meeting stated that the Cabinet considered climate change adaptation proposals. Currently, and as per that declaration, Kenya is free to cultivate and import GMO maize and other foods.
It remains to be seen if this decision will remain unchallenged.
Kenya’s decision comes a year after Mexico’s highest court refused to overturn an injunction limiting cultivation of GM corn. The court unanimously agreed with petitioners that cultivating GM corn posed a credible threat to the South American country’s rich native corn biodiversity.
Multinational chemical and seed companies Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, and Corteva (formerly Dow and DuPont) sought to overturn the injunction.