The long-standing ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Kenya has finally been lifted, marking a historic moment in the country’s agri-biotech development.
Newly elected Kenyan President William Ruto’s government, through a Cabinet decision, lifted the ban to allow the adoption of approved biotech crops and importation of GM foods. By lifting the ban, the Cabinet further authorized open cultivation and importation of white GMO maize.
- Kenya banned GM foods in 2012 after a controversial study linked such foods to cancer
- But the country’s new cabinet overturned the ban to combat climate change indiuced droughts which have caused food insecurity in the country
- However, there have been concerns about possible risks, and there is much debate about the pros and cons of using GMOs.
Lifting the ban ‘could spur biotechnology research and help alleviate food insecurity, according to the government.
“Cabinet vacated its earlier decision of November 8, 2012 prohibiting the open cultivation of genetically modified crops and the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations; effectively lifting the ban on GM Crops,” read the statement lifting the ban.
“Open cultivation and importation of white (GM) maize is now authorised.”
In the same meeting, the Kenyan government lifted an embargo on the commercialisation of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton, a GM cotton variety that is resistant to African bollworm, a devastating insect pest.
Agriculture is a pillar of the Kenyan economy, accounting for 20 per cent of GDP. With this decision, it becomes the second country on the continent after South Africa to authorise GM foods.
GM foods are produced from organisms whose genetic material has been changed by introducing the gene of a different organism through a process called genetic engineering. GMO foods are likely to become a crucial tool in feeding the world’s growing population, especially in areas with harsh climates. However, there have been concerns about possible risks.
In 2012, Kenya’s cabinet banned the importation of GM maize following a controversial study led by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini that linked consumption of GM foods to cancer in rats. The study was later debunked by further European research.
The government approved the commercialisation of Bt cotton In December 2019, as it sought to revitalize the underperforming cotton sub-sector. After seeing some benefits, the government is now banking on GM crops as part of its broader plans to revamp agriculture and improve food security in the face of drought and other effects of climate change.
To lift the ban, the Cabinet consulted various expert and technical reports on the adoption of biotechnology, including reports from Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA), World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United States of America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The recommendations also informed the lifting of the ban of the task force appointed to review matters relating to GM foods and their safety.
However, five sets of ethical concerns have been raised about GM crops: potential harm to human health; potential damage to the environment; negative impact on traditional farming practices; excessive corporate dominance and the ‘unnaturalness’ of the technology.
Kenya had been reluctant to approve the import and planting of GM crops amid ongoing concerns about possible health risks. Let us look at some of the effects of GMOs to human health.
Genetically engineering foods is a relatively new practice, which means the long-term effects on safety are not yet clear. Scientists have not yet shown that GM foods are harmful to health but research is ongoing.
There is a small risk that GMO foods can trigger an allergic reaction, but this will only happen if the genetic change triggers the production of an allergen.
A person with a nut allergy may very well experience an allergic reaction to products created with soybeans, for example, if researchers combine a gene from a Brazil nut with a soybean. Unless they can demonstrate that the gene itself is not the problem, the World Health Organization (WHO) forbids genetic engineers from utilizing DNA from allergens.
Before a product is released to the market, scientists evaluate the possibility that GMO foods would cause allergic reactions in people. If required, they can stop the product’s release.
There have been worries that consuming GMO foods may increase the body’s levels of possibly cancer-causing chemicals, which in turn may promote the growth of the disease.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is no proof that eating GMO foods now either raises or lowers the risk of developing cancer.
Certain GMOs have modifications that render them resistant to specific antibiotics. Theoretically, when people or animals eat these plants, their genes may be ingested. As a result, the individual or animal may also get resistant to antibiotics.
There have been worries that food DNA could damage the immune system ever since some food scientists discovered in 2009 that food DNA can survive as far as the gut.
Additionally, some people have expressed concern that consuming GMO food can alter human genetics. But whether a food is genetically modified or not, the majority of its DNA is either eliminated by cooking or degrades before it reaches the large intestine.
There is no proof that minute DNA fragments from food have any effect on a person’s genetic makeup or health, despite the fact that they can and do reach the bloodstream and internal organs.
GMO foods may have an effect on the liver, kidney, pancreas, and reproductive system, according to some 2009 studies. They demanded more research because they lacked proof to support this.
GMOs are, however, said to offer several advantages such as higher yields and resistance to droughts and pests. However, the jury is still out on this issue.
Growing plants that are more resistant to diseases spread by insects or viruses will likely result in higher yields for farmers and a more attractive product. All these factors contribute to lower costs for the consumer and can ensure that more people have access to quality food.
This is why President Ruto’s government has turned to GM crops in the hope that they will result in bigger harvests.