Scientists and lobby groups continue to differ on ''designer foods'' (14/10/2007)

Scientists and lobby groups continue to differ on ''designer foods''
Story by JOHN MBARIA Environment Correspondent
Sunday Nation, 14 OCTOBER 2007

During the debate on the controversial Biosafety Bill 2007 that went through the Second Reading in Parliament on Thursday, MPs were reported to have voiced concerns over the introduction of extraneous issues that were not covered by the Bill.

Those opposed to ''designer'' farming have asked scientists to address the fear of a likelihood that cultivating GM-crops might lead to decimation of such useful insects as bees and butterflies.

''We risk a possibility of poor farmers being at the mercy of Western companies selling expensive inputs, if we start growing GM-crops,'' said Ngonyo.

Mr Ngonyo wonders why key financiers have given a wide berth to organic farming in Africa, yet international markets are desperately in need of organic products.

MPs have been criticised for introducing alien and invasive species like the water hyacinth; cloning of humankind and the risks some Kenyans might have been exposed to in earlier Aids trials to the Bill fronted by Cabinet minister Dr Noah Wekesa.

''This Bill has nothing to do with Aids trials or the other matters raised by MPs in Parliament… It is basically about enabling the introduction and commercialisation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the country,'' said Josphat Ngonyo, the director of Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW).

First published in 2005, the Bill provides for the safe entry of GMOs into the country. It calls for the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority and sets out the latter''s powers and responsibilities in regulating research, importation and commercialisation of GMOs.

Once enacted, it is expected to ensure the safe handling, use and transfer of these products.

But there are polarised views on its pros and cons. Championing one side of the debate has been the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, an organisation composed of 43 NGOs, farmer associations, consumer and community groups.

Though the group has said it supports an effective and powerful biosafety law to regulate GMOs, it has decried the ''intentional scheme'' to weaken the Bill so that the importation and commercialisation of GMOs can be ''hussle-free.''

The coalition also takes issue with the very process of preparing the Bill saying it did not incorporate the views of farmers and ordinary Kenyans but rather took a ''boardroom approach''.

In a recent advertiser''s announcement in the Daily Nation, the group said the Bill leaves no room for Kenyans to debate whether or not they ought to accept GMOs here.

The group also says the Bill does not ask importers of GMOs to label them appropriately, neither does it deal with the safety of pharmaceutical products or food aid entering the country.

Members say it is too lenient on those who might release a GMO that harms public health or the environment. They are urging the Government to withdraw it from Parliament.

An equally vocal pro-GM lobby also published a whole page advertisement countering what the opponents of the Bill say.

Operating under the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), the lobby led by Norah Olembo and Florence Wambugu, both leading scientists in related fields deny that plucking genes from one set of organisms and pumping them into different organisms is morally wrong.

They say GMOs are a reality today and that it is safer for Kenya to be prepared for their entry by passing the Biosafety Bill, 2007.

Other groups have taken a middle-ground position, arguing that what matters is for the Government to promote the interest and safety of the public.

“This is because many GM crops are designed to produce one or more toxins which make it possible for the relevant plants to kill off destructive pests on their own,” said a researcher at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) who declined to be named.

The researcher added that consuming crops with such toxins over a long time could cause allergies. The toxins may have medium and long-term effects on other living organisms and particularly useful insects in the environment.

He argued that such concerns are not far-fetched because the world has only been cultivating and consuming GM products for slightly over a decade.

But many other scientists believe that Kenyans should not entertain blanket condemnation of genetic engineering. They say it has enabled humanity to develop artificially produced insulin, a much-needed hormone for diabetics to break down sugar in their bodies.

Although both sides of the debate have stated that food insecurity is the biggest challenge facing Africa, the pro-GM lobby has argued that technology – particularly manipulation of plant and animal genes – might be the panacea for food insecurity.

In its website, Kari says it is currently undertaking GM-seed research to combat the problems that hamper profitable agricultural research in Kenya – disease, pest, droughts and poor seeds.

Kari''s research, which has centred on GM-maize, sorghum, cotton and sweet potatoes, is jointly undertaken with international research institutions and giant biotech companies from the US and elsewhere.

The aim, Kari says, is to produce seeds that are resistant to pests, weeds such as striga, droughts and others that are fortified with alien proteins.

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