This could be the big turning-point moment for biotechnology in African agriculture: Deputy President William Ruto of Kenya has announced that our country will lift its ban on genetically-modified foods and has started the process of allowing commercialization of GM crops.
“Science and technology will take us to the next level,” he said on August 12.
The importation ban will end in two months, following consultations within the government as well as public hearings. This should be followed soon by the environmental release (open field cultivation) of Bt maize should the National Biosafety Authority allow the application by Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). A similar application in respect to Bt cotton is also in the cards.
The goal, said Ruto, is to “maximize on agricultural production, improve health services, conserve the environment, and basically improve the living standards of our people.”
That’s exactly what GM crops promise to do: They will help farmers like me grow more food on less land than ever before, helping us meet the needs of a growing population in a sustainable way, while improving the farmers’ economic well-being. They are an indispensable part of achieving food security and ensuring that less herbicides are released to the environment..
So, in the not-too-distant future, we expect to plant GM seeds in Kenyan soil! Thanks to KALRO’s and AATF scientists, among other collaborating research organizations, the first varieties of Bt cotton and Bt maize will be bred to fight insect pests and improve water efficiency. On my small farm near Eldoret, in the North Rift part of the country, I’ll grow Bt maize as farmers in other parts of the country grow Bt cotton as soon as they’re available.
I applaud my government for taking this vital step. The scientific consensus in favor of the safety of GM crops is overwhelming and the stakes are high. Kenyans and other Africans simply must have better ways to raise staple crops.
Our continent trails the rest of the world in food production. Africans are victims of political instability, inadequate infrastructure, climate change, and extreme poverty. Many of these problems are beyond our immediate control. Yet we’ve compounded them with policies we can control: The longstanding refusal of so many governments to permit the planting of crops that farmers in North and South America have taken for granted for years.
Why shouldn’t we have the same crops as farmers in the United States, Canada, and Brazil?
Farmers in Burkina Faso and South Africa have enjoyed access to these technologies. They’ve used them for years, with excellent results. Yet among African nations, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The rest of us watch from a distance, wishing we could produce more food than we do.
For at least six years, Kenya has understood that biotechnology must be a part of our farming future. In 2009, we created the National Biosafety Authority to oversee the development and handling of GM crops. Ever since, we’ve waited for an announcement like the one Deputy President William Ruto just made.
The wait has been long—almost certainly longer than necessary. But as they say, late is better than never.
As it happens, the ending of the ban marks the beginning of a new period of delay. Our farmers will have to go through a full season of growing before we have an adequate supply of seeds. It may take as long as 18 months before a farmer like me can start to grow a GM crop that enters the mainstream food supply.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to hear from the naysayers. They’ll complain that GM crops cause cancer, which is sheer nonsense, as anyone who has looked at the scientific data knows. They’ll also grumble that GM crops are part of a foreign ideological conspiracy, even though the kinds of crops we’ll grow in Kenya will be designed to confront the challenges we face here, in cooperation with specialists at the Kenyan Agricultural and Livestock and Research Organization and the National Biosafety Authority.
Kenya is sometimes called “the pulse of eastern Africa.” Many other countries—and not merely those in eastern Africa—look to us for leadership. Our acceptance of biotechnology bodes well for farmers in Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. Farmers in these countries and elsewhere could be just a few years away from harvesting GM bananas, cassava, corn, rice, sorghum, sweet potatoes, and wheat.
Our goal as farmers is to grow as much good food as possible—and we want access to safe technologies that can help us achieve the food security that has proven so elusive on our continent.
As Kenya leads the way, let’s hope everyone follows.
Gilbert arap Bor grows corn (maize), vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also lectures at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org
This first appeared in Daily Nation (Nairobi, Kenya).