Don't Embrace GM, Go for Homegrown Solutions (11/8/2004)

"At a time when the world is still monitoring and refining risk assessment procedures, it is not clear why the Kenya government is in such an apparent haste to embrace GM foods."

This incisive article from Kenya contains an important truth - that governments and agencies who line up for GM crops are often not just in the business of appeasing the US and the biotech industry and their local supporters, they are also seeking cover for their chronic failure to deliver on vital food and agricultural issues.

Don't Embrace GM, Go for Homegrown Solutions
John Mbaria
The East African, July 26, 2004
Nairobi (Kenya)

Shortly before declaring the famine in Kenya a national disaster, President Mwai Kibaki had announced that his government would embrace genetically modified (GM) foods.

While opening a greenhouse that will be used to grow genetically-modified maize for research at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Nairobi, he was reported to have said that his government was committed to the development of GM or any other technology that is likely to increase agricultural output.

For a country that has experienced occasional famines, one that is yet to attain food security, and one that has suffered recent deaths of more than 80 people due to aflatoxin-related health problems, Kibaki's contention that biotechnology "can help us increase food output" seems, on the surface, reasonable.

However, it is unclear how far the Kenya government had addressed other agricultural issues that have created food insecurity in the country.

Kenya's record of addressing the hunger problem through other means is, to say the least, poor. Past governments, and to some extent the current one, have shown little commitment to eradicating hunger in the country for good. Many are the instances when food has been used as political capital to buy off victims of hunger.

Kenya's budgetary allocations have always been highly tilted towards such non-productive ventures as administration and related services. Today, the Office of the President, with its multitude of departments, continues to get the lion's share of taxpayers' money. While there seems to be a rationale for this kind of expenditure, it leaves little for investment in ventures that could engender and promote agricultural production in real terms.

The government does not have a good record of investing in concrete projects in rural areas that would enhance food production, increase employment, raise household incomes and create sustainable food production.

And having adhered to the World Bank's push for structural adjustment programmes, the government kicked out a significant number of agricultural extension workers in a much-maligned retrenchment exercise it carried out two years ago. This has created a yawning gap in a country where extension services had influenced the pattern, scale and returns from agricultural activities.

Over the past couple of decades, grand corruption and sheer ineptitude have killed such irrigation schemes as Bura in the Coast province and Ahero in Nyanza, while the Mwea irrigation scheme in Central province has been plagued by serious conflict between the rice farmers and the National Irrigation Board over ownership of the irrigated land.

Moreover, there is little attempt at expanding rainwater harvesting, especially in ASAL areas. Nearly all the rainwater harvesting projects are either carried out through private initiatives or by such bodies as the Kenya Rain Water Association.

In addition, farmers have continued to engage in the cultivation of the same small variety of crops year after year. This has led to the thriving of pests and diseases, thus severely affecting harvests.

In addition, most rural feeder roads have remained so dilapidated that a visitor might be forgiven for confusing them for cattle tracks.

All this neglect has taken place against the background of a steady rise in the country's population, the fragmentation of agricultural land into ever smaller sizes and an over-reliance on rainfed agriculture.

It is no wonder, then, that food production in the country has been on a steady decline. Expansion of farming into more inhospitable semi-arid lands has, in itself, led to diminishing returns and, at times, total crop failure.

The irony is that the government has made a commendable effort in identifying the real source of food insecurity. Detailed sessional papers made in 1981, 1993 and 1994 on national food policy have, as they say, hit the nail on the head. But there has been a huge dichotomy between policy pronouncements and implementation.

Experts argue that structural changes in agriculture and land relations, combined with the use of low input technologies, have a big and fundamental role to play in ensuring food security and food sovereignty.

The government needs to be cautious over the real intentions of the giant multinationals that drive global biotechnology research. Today, the top 10 companies driving this research spend over $3 billion each year, while governments and other public-sector bodies the world over invest a mere $300 million. And as the Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, says, "Biotechnology research is (currently) concentrated on products that have no relevance to food in developing countries."

The Kenya government ought to learn a simple historical fact: That there is nothing offered for free. We have ample examples to show us that there is a heavy price to pay for unwittingly accepting what appears, on the surface, a "goodwill" gesture from the West.

For instance, through FAO, the Australian government channelled huge amounts of financial resources for the propagation of Prosopis juriflora, an invasive weed that has now colonised pastures in the better parts of Baringo, Tana River, Garissa and Turkana districts, causing severe damage to pastoralists' livelihoods there. Ostensibly propagated to sustain fuel supplies in these districts, Prosopis is now a big menace and scientists in the country are scratching their heads in an attempt to find a way to eradicate it.

Are GM foods safe? I find Mr Diouf's stand on this issue reasonable. He says that although these foods have been evaluated according to existing procedures for risk assessment and have been deemed to be safe to eat, the absence of evidence of harm to human health "is not a guarantee that they are completely safe."

At a time when the world is still monitoring and refining risk assessment procedures, it is not clear why the Kenya government is in such an apparent haste to embrace GM foods.

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