Kenya accused of 'secrecy' on GMO technology Bill (10/7/2007)

Kenya accused of 'secrecy' on GMO technology Bill
By JOHN MBARIA Special Correspondent
The East African, July 8 2007

The process of preparing a Bill to regulate genetically modified technology in Kenya is shrouded in secrecy, a leading environmental Lawyer told The EastAfrican last week.

"There has been so much secrecy that most stakeholders do not even know where they should go to get a copy of the Bill," said Maurice Makoloo.

He explained that, under Kenya's environmental law, any proposed law or policy is supposed to be subjected to an environmental impact assessment, which would give all concerned parties a chance to interrogate its contents.

"But as for the Biosafety Bill, this has not been done - most researchers, lawyers and other stakeholders have been kept in the dark."

Similar sentiments were expressed by representatives of Kenya's small-scale farmers, faith-based organisations, NGOs and civil society groups who presented a memorandum to the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Noah Wekesa, and Agricultural Minister Kipruto Arap Kirwa.

In the memorandum, the groups demanded the withdrawal of the Bill before it becomes an Order Paper for discussion by Members of Parliament. They also called for a national exercise of collecting views and the incorporation of the views into the Bill.

The EastAfrican has acquired a copy of the Bill, which - on the surface - appears harmless as it provides for the establishment of a National Biosafety Authority to regulate biotechnology in the country as contained in Section 5.

First published in 2005, the Bill is intended to "facilitate responsible research" into genetically modified organisms and to ensure protection in transfer and use of GMOs. It also provides for the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority and the National Biosafety Committee, which will regulate all GM activities in the country.

"No person shall conduct any of the following activities without the written approval of the Authority," it reads in part.

Dr Florence Wambugu, head of the African Harvest Biotech Foundation and a key pro-GM campaigner, says the Bill’s objectives "are to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms."

The EastAfrican has established that the new Bill is the culmination of a long-running boardroom initiative by key biotechnology bodies and national research institutes, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) and giant biotechnology multinationals and their foundations.

These efforts are said to have begun in the early 2000s when it was felt that with the global expansion of research on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Kenya needed a national policy and law to outline the direction of such research and to ensure safety of the public. The scheme also involved taking some MPs on a tour to Kenya's coast to "sensitise" them to biotechnology issues.

Seemingly, researchers have not been keen to wait for the Bill to become law before openly experimenting on the GM crops. For instance, with facilitation from US-based biotechnology multinational Monsanto and the Syngenta Foundation (associated with the Swiss-based biotechnology giant, Syngenta) researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) had been experimenting on GM maize, cassava, sweet potatoes and cotton.

At the same time, the National Biosafety Committee allowed open trials of genetically modified cotton on farmers’ fields in Mwea, Eastern Kenya, last month.

Interestingly, Monsanto offered the new cotton variety, which it hailed as having the ability to save farmers up to 32 per cent in production costs, as it does not require pesticides.

The cotton variety is said to be loaded with an organism termed Bacillus thurigiensis that is reputed to have in-built poisons that kill cotton pests (especially African bollworm).

But environmentalists now fear that the introduction of these toxins in areas that have not developed a natural ability to destroy them, could result in the decimation of beneficial plants and insects besides other hazards.

Observers are wondering why the concerned Kenyan authorities and individual scientists seem to be in such a hurry to introduce GMOs in the country. Some Kenyan MPs seem to have also bought into the pro-GMO lobby as they have in the past praised the benefits that genetically modified foods can bring to the country. Media reports published two years ago about the MPs' workshops at the Whitesands Hotel in Mombasa showed most were receptive to biotechnology, which they believed could uplift economic development in the country, and were also supportive of the Biosafety Bill.

Analysts have now taken issue with some of the Bill’s provisions. On June 12 this year, Patricia Mbote, a professor of law at the International Environmental Law Research Centre in Nairobi, wrote in a newspaper article that though the Bill is fairly uncontroversial, it does not deal with the contentious issue of labelling. "But Kenya's main market for agricultural exports is Europe, where labelling requirements are strict and consumers are generally more sceptical of GMOs."

She felt that lack of provisions on labelling will jeopardise this valuable trade besides influencing parliamentary debate. Her sentiments were echoed last week by the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum (KESSFF), which was categorical that farmers in the country stand to lose them European market once their products are associated with genetic modification.

"Consumers in the international markets are now after organically produced foods, but here we are being pressurised to raise GM crops... What will happen to the market for our products is anybody's guess," said the treasurer of KESSFF Justus Lavi.

"Our fear is that we will end up losing our traditional seed varieties and get hooked to expensive varieties from Monsanto and other international biotechnology companies," said Gerald Ngatia, a member of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition.

He added that once this happens, Kenyan farmers will not only be forced to buy the seeds, but also chemicals and especially pesticides emanating from these companies to ensure the survival of their crops.

Another contentious issue is the fact that the Bill does not address food coming into Kenya as aid. In the past, there have been claims that international agencies that distribute food relief in Kenya during periods of famine and other natural calamities could have triggered off the entry of GM products. For instance, there has been a lingering suspicion that food aid, especially maize, brought into the country by USAid and such bodies as the World Food Programme might be from genetically modified stocks.

Dr Wambugu conceded that food relief from the US is genetically modified. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that in the US, between 50 and 70 per cent of the maize grown is genetically modified. "There is also a policy in the two organisations not to discriminate between GM and non-GM foods when offering them as relief," said Dr Daniel Maingi of ANAW Biowatch, an anti-GMO organisation based in Nairobi.

"For the draft Bill to proceed, the debate needs to move beyond scientists and policymakers to encompass open public discussions with all stakeholders, including farmer groups," wrote Prof Mbote.

The Kenyan public, the anti-Bill lobby says, need to first be educated to understand what biotechnology is all about as well as the potential implications of consuming genetic modified foods. This is because evidence collected during past surveys suggests most Kenyans do not have any idea of what the two terms - biotechnology and genetic modification - entail.

"It is very important for decision makers, leaders, farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk, traders and consumers to distinguish the difference between the two terms and their implications before allowing the Bill to be discussed in parliament," says a statement released last week to the media by the Kenya Biosafety Coalition.

On her part, Prof Mbote calls for “unbiased information” to be provided on the benefits as well as risks of GMOs so that demand for GM regulations will be based on knowledge rather than on speculation or vested interests.

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