GMOs - We should be wary of those pushing this agenda (15/8/2007)

Good article.


GMOs - We Should Be Wary of Those Pushing This Agenda
John Mbaria The Nation (Nairobi, Kenya), August 15 2007

AS WE ALL SIT GLUED TO THE melodramatic antics of politicians, another very determined lot has been working tirelessly to ensure that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) they have patented get a foothold in the country.

In a subtle manner, giant biotechnology companies have been telling everyone that theirs is only a novel undertaking to ensure that hunger and famines are wiped out from the country.

And they know where to go, for they have targeted underpaid scientists and gung-ho politicians ready to do their bidding without raising a question.

Even before MPs had come to back a haphazardly drafted Biosafety Bill, 2005, they were taken on a trip to Makatini, South Africa's GM-capital, in May.

And ever since they came back, they have been waxing lyrical about GM products, with Muhoroni MP Ayiecho Olweny and his Mwea counterpart Alfred Nderitu publicly vowing to ensure GM crops are not only raised but also become part of Kenya's commercial agriculture.

BUT WHY SHOULD THESE MPs be careful of publicly supporting GM crops? For one, most of us are not even aware of what genetically modified crops are' nor are scientists sure of their safety.

By definition, GM crops are those in which 'alien' material (or genes) have been introduced either for the sake of giving them in-built ability to fight off pests or to make them tastier, more productive or even able to withstand such weed-killing chemicals as Roundup.

But our MPs ought to seek to understand not only actual and possible implications of planting and eating these crops, but also the hidden agenda of the giant biotechnology companies which jealously guard patents on these crops.

Pro-GM scientists say no food is 100 per cent safe, and that because of the heated reactions they have been attracting throughout the world, GM foods have now undergone thorough testing and are, therefore, probably safer than traditional foods.

While Kenya does not have evidence to counter that assertion, it is curious that most countries in the European Union are not keen to embrace GM foods.

The US and Canada may be growing these crops, but there, GM maize is not cultivated to be milled for ugali but to feed livestock, besides generating bio-fuels. Further, it remains unclear why the West is never keen to support the cultivation of GM wheat, which is a major staple there.

Those who have followed the matter closely say the Biosafety Bill is a product of a "boardroom" process rather than an all-inclusive one involving farmers, students, biology teachers, scientists, civil society, and other interested Kenyans.

Scientists and MPs have not told the country who sponsored both the drafting process and the trip the MPs took to South Africa in May, and how all these activities fit in the ongoing developments fit in with Kenya's seed market.

It is of utmost importance that we treat the Biosafety Bill with the seriousness it deserves. I am not saying everything in the Bill is awful. For one, it introduces the National Biosafety Authority, charging it with a host of regulative responsibilities. It also sets up a biosafety committee to be peopled by some of the best scientific brains in the country.

But it is fashioned as if the question of whether or not the country ought to embrace GM foods is no longer a consideration.

Further, it is silent on such biosafety issues as how to handle outbreaks of viruses leading to the foot-and-mouth disease or birdflu that have recently led to total annihilation of millions of cattle and chicken in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

IT IS ALSO SILENT on how to deal with the safety of imported pharmaceutical products, or on whether the National Biosafety Authority ought to investigate the safety of food and seed aid to Kenya.

Lastly, there is evidence that companies eager to manufacture vaccines and other drugs have been testing them in Africa. Although this has proved disastrous, the Bill offers no solution.

This is dangerous. The Nigerian government has taken Pfizer, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, to court over the deaths of unspecified number of children following the 1996 trials of Trovan, an unapproved anti-meningitis drug in the Kano area.

Who will save us from such evils if our MPs and scientists rush to embrace laws that are not suited to our welfare?

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