How new food crops are being forced down Kenya's throat (10/7/2007)

How new food crops are being forced down Kenya's throat
By JOHN MBARIA Special Correspondent
The East African, 8 July 2007

An ongoing campaign to persuade Kenyan farmers to grow genetically modified maize, cotton and other crops has the blessings of key public bodies, national research organisations and politicians and is bankrolled by giant biotechnology multinationals from the United States and elsewhere, investigations by The EastAfrican have revealed.

The low-profile campaign has seen millions of dollars from foreign sources being channelled into such national scientific bodies as the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) as well as several not-for profit pro-GM organisations and individual scientists.

Despite the fact that Kenya's chief outlet for horticulture and other products, the European Union, remains totally opposed to GMOs.

Members of Parliament have not been left out. The EastAfrican has reliably learnt that the entire process of drafting the Biosafety Bill (2005) was bankrolled by the external agencies affiliated to giant biotechnology multinationals who also organised an all-expenses paid trip for several MPs to South Africa early last year.

The parliamentarians were taken on a guided tour of the Makatini GM Cotton Project and other large-scale projects in South Africa. Those who went included the MP for Mwea, Alfred Nderitu, who later publicly supported the introduction of GMOs in Kenya.

On the surface, most of these activities appear harmless. Indeed, many biotechnology solutions represent novel attempts to tackle the problems bedevilling agricultural production and address the perennial food shortages in the country. Pro-GM lobbyists claim that GM technology is the answer to Africa’s hunger.

For instance, a leading pro-GM campaigner, Dr Florence Wambugu, has in the past told the media that GM can literally banish hunger and famine from Africa. But The EastAfrican has learnt that such claims about GM crops are often exaggerated.

Take the case of a three-year experiment carried out in Kenya by Dr Wambugu to develop virus-resistant sweet potatoes. Funded by US-based biotechnology firm, Monsanto, the project was hailed the world over as having offered hope for "hungry Africa" even before its results had started trickling in. But in a report in January 2004, the Daily Nation revealed that the project was a flop.

"Trials to develop a virus-resistant sweet potato through biotechnology have failed," the report said.

A report published in the New Scientist on February 7 the same year said trials using traditional sweet potato varieties in Uganda had performed better.

"Embarrassingly, in Uganda conventional breeding has produced a high-yielding variety more quickly and more cheaply," the report said.

That big money is involved in the campaign is not in doubt. For instance, KARI's GM research - which is undertaken jointly with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre - is funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation and Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture to the tune of Ksh11.5 billion ($171.6 million).

In addition, a similar project dubbed Insect Resistant Maize for Africa - a joint venture between the government and international research institutes - had the bulk of its Ksh450 million ($6.6 million) budget provided by Syngenta and Rockefeller. It aimed at developing a maize variety that is able to resist the stem borers and distribute it to farmers by 2008.

The project came into the limelight with the official opening of a $12 million greenhouse for GM maize trials by President Mwai Kibaki in June 2004. But the government abandoned the project and ordered the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) to destroy all the materials for the trials in August 2005 after a technician reportedly sprayed restricted pesticide to enable the maize resist pests.

Syngenta Foundation is associated with a leading Swiss-based agribusiness firm with an annual turnover of $8.1 billion and a presence in 90 countries. Its local subsidiary, Syngenta East Africa Ltd, is one of 59 seed companies registered by Kephis.

Monsanto Kenya Ltd has meanwhile denied bankrolling the drafting of the Biosafety Bill.

"We did not finance activities leading to the making of the Bill," said the company's corporate affairs director Kinyua Mbijjiwe.

However, small-scale Kenyan farmers have expressed suspicions that the ongoing campaign to have the country adopt GMOs is a subtle scheme by giant multinationals to get them "hooked" to the latter's seeds and anti-pest chemicals, thus creating a huge market for them.

"This is a scheme to make us abandon our traditional seed varieties so that we can be forever dependent on the seeds and chemicals they manufacture," said the treasurer of the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum Justus Lavi.

There are also fears that the fact that it is the leading economy in the region means that the pressure on Kenya to accept GM crops is going to be particularly intense as such acceptance will allow the multinationals to get a foothold in the entire East And Central African market.

Reports show that different biotechnology multinationals have been bankrolling KARI to engage in open quarantine tests of genetically modified cassava, maize, cotton and sweet potatoes on their behalf.

Although Mr Mbijjiwe declined to say whether Monsanto has financed the ongoing trials by KARI, reports say the company's Danford Centre in the US, together with the Syngenta Foundation, had financed KARI's GM maize, cassava, sweet potatoes and cotton trials. These trials have been okayed by the National Biosafety Committee.

Dr Daniel Maingi of ANAW Biotechnology Watch said the ongoing trials combined with the campaign to have the country's parliament pass the Biosafety Bill are the prelude to a full scale introduction and propagation of these crops in Kenya.

For Kenya, being rushed into introducing these crops on a large scale could have unforeseen consequences because, while globally it is not yet established whether GMOs are safe, such public gatekeepers as Kephis lack the capacity to put "firewalls" around local engagement with these crops. Although attempts to bring GMOs into the country began in the 1990s, Kephis only set up a Ksh20 million ($298,000) laboratory to test for such products recently. "The fact that we do not have the capacity to test does not mean that these companies bring genetically modified maize here," said Kephis chief executive Dr Chagema Kedera.

He added that Kephis relies on reports from regulatory bodies of such countries as the US for information on GM status of maize and other crops brought into Kenya by multinational biotechnology firms.

But though Dr Kedera said Kephis does its own independent tests - and has, at one point in the past been taken to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by US-based seed companies for delaying the registration of some of their seed varieties - doubts linger over its capacity to test all the products entering the country through the various points of entry.

"Moreover, it is possible that finished products coming into the country could have transgenic traits, but testing for this is beyond Kephis’s mandate," Kedera said.

Much of Kenya's agricultural research is handled by KARI, which has been involved in developing a series of hybrid maize and other crop varieties since its inception. But of late, KARI has taken to openly experimenting with GM seed varieties of different crops brought in by Monsanto and other companies.

Recently, KARI announced that it was about to release into the market a GM maize variety that is resistant to stem borer. The latter is a pest estimated to cause losses of up to 15 per cent of the entire Kenyan maize crop.

Besides GM maize, KARI has also been engaged in open trials of sweet potatoes, cotton and sorghum varieties in Kakamega in Western Kenya, Embu in Eastern Kenya and other places. This has been taking place even though the country has yet to put in place legal checks and balances to regulate GM products.

There are fears that through wind action, the trials could end up contaminating hybrid varieties of maize in areas where KARI has been doing the trials.

This fear is reinforced by recent reports from Mexico that the government there has announced that the DNA of some wild varieties of maize in areas close to where GM maize is grown had been found by researchers to possess GM traits.

But Dr Kedera ruled out the contamination of hybrid maize varieties by GM traits, saying Kephis has insisted that the maize seedlings under test should not be allowed to flower and that all trial materials be destroyed to avoid any possibility of contamination. He told The EastAfrican that Kephis had to order the termination of trials that had been going on in Kiboko in Eastern Kenya as the scientists involved "had not followed the laid down regulations."

Genetic engineering is defined as the deliberate alteration of plants' or animals' genetic makeup for purposes of doing away with unwanted traits or to produce traits that are desirable to biotech researchers. Such engineering has the potential of raising productivity and helping the plant cope with environmental or pest hazards.

In Kenya, the trials are conducted for the purpose of producing crops resistant to striga (witch weed), grain and stem borer and other pests.

Many of the genetically modified versions on trial are said to be "armed" with the capacity to withstand such pests or herbicides that kill striga and other weeds.

While many scientists see nothing wrong with genetic modification, there are those who say that science has not fully grasped the implications of injecting "alien" genes into edible plants and animals and prefer to approach the matter with caution. Some, especially anti-GM activists, see these experiments on "Frankenfoods" as deeply evil and dangerous.

GM maize was first raised in 1997 in the US and Canada and has since spread to about 21 million hectares with over 50 per cent of the maize produced in the US being modified to resist insects/pests or to tolerate herbicides.

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