Published on 04/05/2011
News that commercial farming of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) could soon be a reality in the country will likely reignite debate on the role of biotechnology in ensuring food security. The National Biosafety Authority was recently quoted as promising that regulations governing production of GMOs were ready for adoption. These will guide implementation of the Biosafety Act, 2009 which sought to regulate GMOs farming.
Biosafety describes measures used for assessing, monitoring, and managing risks associated with GMOs. These are plants, animals or microorganisms that have had DNA inserted into their cells from another organism.
The direct in vitro transfer of DNA between or within species is referred to as genetic modification.
It is expected that embracing GMOs will promote increased food harvests and therefore, a natural mitigation for food shortage. Considering the below-average rains being experienced in many regions in the country and the looming famine, this should be good news.
Touting GMOs as the silver bullet for food scarcity is nothing new. Governments in Africa, including Kenya, that are exposed to recurrent food insufficiency are under increasing pressure to adopt GM technology.
The passing of the Biosafety Act was characterised by open lobbying by pro-biotechnology multinational giants against determined proponents of conservative, ecologically-sustainable agriculture practice. Eventually, the pro-GMO camp prevailed. However, it was apparent genuine debate on the merits and demerits of the GMOs had been subverted by powerful, vested interests.
For poor nations, whether or not to adopt genetically modified products is hardly ever an objective decision for governments and farmers. Rather, it is presented as take-it-or-perish doctor’s prescription! The argument goes that, by planting high-yield GMOs contrasted to the traditional variety, food sufficiency would be guaranteed.
This would lead to attendant benefits such as a healthy citizenry and improved quality of living. Besides, governments would find profitable alternative use for the huge amounts spent in importing food.
The real truth is less charitable. Rather, it is rooted in a pernicious and often secretive marriage of big business to government. Peering through debates in media and other forums promoting adoption of GMOs, it is apparent multinational companies under the protection of home governments are spending fortunes to market GMOs in Africa.
But why would the US government, for instance, spend so much resources promoting GMOs? The official answer is painted in generosity: that it is championing science and technology to boost food production and, therefore, food sufficiency in a hungry Third World. GMOs are portrayed as the miracle cure to hunger.
Who owns this technology? Who has the control rights for GMOs? A few companies nicknamed the “Gene Giants” dominate global sales of seeds.
Seed trade is big business valued at Sh1.9 trillion. The aggressive pursuit of seed business by gene giants poses important moral issues. It is evidently prompted by a realisation of the power of the seed. Farming exclusively depends on seeds. Majority of the local farmers own and control their seeds.
They grow their own crops from seeds they have saved from previous harvests. They make decisions concerning seed storage, sharing, replanting as well as redistribution.
By contrast, GMO seeds are patented. Rushed embrace of GM technology could disenfranchise farmers through patenting of naturally-occurring genes. It could lead to licensing and therefore controlling seeds that would normally be freely retained and sown the following season. This “patenting of life” could lead to an unacceptable control and commercialisation of natural resources.
Sole dependency on GM seeds has the potential to create a private monopoly over plants and seeds that would likely be priced way above ordinary farmer purchasing power.
Considering the cost of GMOs inputs against the purchasing power of ordinary farmers, it makes sense to promote credible alternatives. In the interests of sustainable farming, farmers should be encouraged to continue using seeds of known source with proven yields.
Government should seriously consider subsidising seeds, not as an episodic bout of generosity, but as a sustained agricultural policy. Whether GMOs are the solution to food scarcity is debatable.
With introduction of GM seeds aimed for sale, the cost of farming will certainly rise and leave local farmers poorer. Farmers should be advised to retain/revert to alternative agro-ecological agriculture, which is sustainable, less costly and environmental friendly.
The writer is a member of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC).
Adapted from Standard Media website