Biosafety in Kenya

Redemtor Atieno

Nairobi, Kenya – Nov 2007

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Kenya was the first country in the world to sign the ‘Cartagena Protocal on Biosafety’, an international protocol focusing on the handling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  However, seven years later the country has not developed a comprehensive legal framework through which the protocol can be observed.

The Biosafety Bill 2007 has gone through its first and second reading. It was due to be voted on however in the light of pending national elections due to take place in December, parliament was dissolved on 21st October, hence no further developments have occurred with regards to the bill.

Betty Kiplagat is a legal expert at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). She has worked with scientists for a while and was involved in the development of the bill and is closely monitoring its progress. She feels the absence of adequate Biosafety legislation exposes the country to regulatory gaps and is a major weakness that undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the national biosafety system.

The country is already conducting research on several genetically modified crops that are being designed to curb diseases and reduce the use of pesticides; these include GM sweet potato, BT cotton, maize and cassava; experiments are conducted in confinement or restricted conditions.

According to the chairman of the National Biosafety committee ‘Prof George Siboe’, GM crop production is already a multi billion dollar business that is set to expand. He says “Africa faces shortages and is forced to import food every year. Countries like Kenya and others in Africa find themselves trapped in what some experts define as stage managed conflict between pro and anti GM groups.”

The chairman attributes this skepticism to fears from lessons learnt about green revolution technologies where negative environmental and health impacts slowly became apparent and proved difficult to mitigate. The chairman wonders whether Africa is going to be left out because she is not BIOSAFE. “We cannot take chances this time, hence the need to put in place Biosafety Regulatory Systems to provide checks and balances on dealing with the technology”.

He further called for the extension of a harambee (togetherness) spirit to science. “Let’s extend our homegrown spirit of Harambee to science & technology and build a functional and protective biosafety framework that will enable our country to extract economic value from biotechnology and help us remove perpetual poverty, a sense of begging, dependence & hopelessness amongst our people.” “The ball is in our court,” he remarked.

Dr Karembu, Director of The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) said “the global community is moving away from labour intensive agriculture and is producing in surplus due to science and technology. She observed that if biotech was bad most industries investing in it would not be doing so.” But the director was quick to note that biotechnology is not a solution to everything. “It is one of the tools” she says and added that “Africa should remember that technology has helped Asia solve its famine problems and enabled it to become a major exporter of rice to Africa. No single approach will provide the solution to food, feed and fiber security”.

“Conventional crop improvement alone will not double food production by 2050. GM crops are not a panacea but essential,” she stated. Noting that there is no law in Kenya to govern development of GM crops, the director says “unless legal systems are put in place to carry out research, Kenya will continue debating and be a consumer for other regions”.

Her observation was that in Africa, only South Africa has commercialized GM crops while a few other countries have recently produced laws to conduct open field trials. She says “appropriate laws would ensure that the technology is not abused and that the way forward for Africa is for the continent to develop a proactive approach”. She took the view that Africa needs to decide for Africa.

But Eric Oyare a programmes Officer at Bridge Africa takes issue with organizations that are pro GMO. He said such organisations are not telling people the whole story but are only highlighting the positive side of things.