United States President Barack Obama’s ringing endorsement of biotechnology in agriculture has the potential to inspire hearts and minds in Africa—and perhaps most especially here in Kenya, the birthplace of his father.
He has spoken favorably of biotech in the past, but his latest statement came on a most appropriate occasion: the dedication in April of a new statue in the U.S. Capitol honoring Norman Borlaug, the scientist who sparked the Green Revolution, a series of technological advances credited with saving a billion lives around the world through better food production.
“I am pleased to join in celebrating the life of your grandfather,” wrote President Obama in a letter to Julie Borlaug. “I share his belief that investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet’s most pressing agricultural problems.”
In Kenya—the birthplace and burial site of Barack Obama, Sr.—we see the problem of food insecurity. More than 1 million Kenyans go hungry each day, according to recent estimates. The problem is worse in other African nations, where more than 230 million people go hungry. That’s one out of every five people on our continent. The pressure to feed them only will increase. Demographers expect our population to double by 2050.
So we aren’t growing enough food right now, and we’re going to have to grow a lot more soon.
Like most Kenyans, I admire President Obama and believe he is a good leader who supports decency and democracy. My countrymen take pride in his presidency, if for no other reason than his Kenyan roots. Although he came to Kenya when he was a senator, he has not yet come here as president—and we all look forward to a visit before he leaves office.
President Obama recognizes that the Green Revolution must evolve into the Gene Revolution. Yet many African governments, including mine in Nairobi, do not yet share this view.
Perhaps this is about to change. A few days ago, a task force convened by Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia heard scientists and researchers present compelling evidence for the adoption of GM crops. (Readers can follow some of the conversation at #GMTaskforceHearing on Twitter.)
I’m on the front lines of Kenyan food production. Like so many farmers in the North Rift, I’ve just planted maize and, due lack of rain, it’s withering because we used conventional seed as none of us have access to GM seeds. We’re going to spend another year failing to meet our potential, with our fields suffering from afflictions such as climate change and maize lethal necrosis disease, which is as deadly as it sounds.
Kenya’s and Africa’s food-security problems have many sources. Yet one of the most basic solutions is simple: Farmers should be able to use the best crop technology. A recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute says that if smallholder farmers in Africa were to gain access to genetically modified crops, they could improve their yields by as much as 29 percent.
In other words, if the ordinary farmers of Kenya and its neighbors were allowed to enjoy the same technologies as the farmers who are President Obama’s constituents, we’d be well on our way to meeting the challenge of feeding our people.
This is not a scientific challenge, but a political one. The science surrounding GM crops is well established. Not only are these plants safe to grow and consume, they’re even better than conventional crops because they allow farmers to produce more food on less land by defeating weeds, pests, climate, and diseases.
As I write these words, a farmer somewhere in the northern hemisphere is planting the world’s 4-billionth acre of GM crops, according to data compiled by Truth About Trade & Technology, an American non-profit group.
This is a remarkable milestone. Most of the progress has come from breadbasket countries where GM crops are widely used, such as the United States, Argentina, Brazil, India, and Canada.
Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, and Sudan are the only African countries to have adopted GM crops. Most others, including Kenya, have resisted this technology. Their governments have succumbed to the irrational fears that have caused much of Europe to oppose GM food.
The time has come to move forward. Kenya must begin by lifting its political ban on imports of GM food and permit the commercialization of GM crops as supported by science. Our Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Felix Koskei recently told journalists, “As a ministry, we have no problems with GMOs.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have always alluded to their vision and support for expanded agricultural production for food security. They should lead Kenya into adoption of the policies that President Obama supports in his own country. Let’s listen to this wise son of Kenya.
Gilbert Arap Bor is a small-scale farmer and founder-chairman of Chepkatet Farmers Co-op Society in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches 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).