Kenya has lifted its 10 year ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines GMOs as organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally through mating and/or natural recombination. 

Proponents of GMOs are lauding this as a good move towards addressing the issue of food insecurity at a time when 4.1 million Kenyans are facing hunger. While it is clear that food insecurity threatens the life of millions of Kenyans, lifting the ban on GMOs is not the solution.

Since the production of the first GMO crop in 1983, there have been significant environmental and health concerns regarding these crops. A joint statement published in a scientific journal in 2015 by over 300 independent scientists and researchers states that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety of GMOs. These scientists further state that rigorous assessment of GMOs has been hampered by lack of funding that is independent of proprietary interests. Echoing the sentiments of these scientists is another scientific study that shows that the majority of studies concluding that GMOs are safe and nutritious are those undertaken by associates of the biotechnology companies producing GM foods and seeds. 

Balloons are used to support a banner reading ‘No GMO in our seeds’ outside the Council of Agricultural ministers’ building.

To date there are no epidemiological studies on the  potential effects of GMO food consumption on human health despite claims from GMO proponents that GMO meals have been consumed in countries such as the United States of America with no impact on health. There is also no scientific consensus regarding the environmental risks associated with the growing of  genetically modified crops.

In line with the UN’s Cartagena Protocol, the National Biosafety Authority is the state corporation in Kenya mandated with ensuring the safety of human and animal health and providing adequate protection of the environment from harmful effects that may result from GMOs. The Cartagena Protocol requires a careful case by case assessment of each GMO by the national authority to determine whether the GMO crop or food satisfies the national criteria for being “safe” and ensures that any environmental health concerns and risks are addressed before its introduction. 

Based on this understanding, it is unclear whether the National Biosafety Authority carried out any independent research on the safety of these crops and foods regarding their effect on the environment and on human health before the ban was lifted in Kenya.

Safety aside, GMOs aggravate food insecurity and threaten food and seed sovereignty. They do so by holding farmers in debt cycles that reduce their ability to produce more food for consumption. More than 80 per cent of the food consumed in Kenya is produced by smallholder farmers. Lifting the ban on GMOs will expose farmers to the exorbitant prices of GM seeds and they are likely to be locked into debt cycles as they try to pay for seeds acquired through loans.

Farmers in Burkina Faso abandoned the cultivation of Bt cotton that was introduced by Monsanto, now Bayer, citing the higher prices of Bt cotton seed and its poor quality compared to their indigenous cotton seed which produced a superior quality of cotton. Their adoption of Bt cotton caused them to lose their niche in the international cotton markets. Yet the same Bt cotton (MON 15985) that failed in Burkina Faso has been introduced in Kenya following national performance trials undertaken by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KEPHIS) with the approval of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA). This begs the question whether the Kenyan government is trying to enslave its people to biotechnology companies.

In November 2021, cotton farmers in Busia were asking the Kenyan government to subsidise the price of Bt cotton seed which was retailing at KSh2,200 a kilo. In March 2022, there was an outcry from cotton farmers in Kenya because of the unavailability of Bt cotton seed, which the chief executive officer of the National Biosafety Authority attributed to the multiplication challenges experienced by the sole company given the task—companies fronting the GM crops, such as Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake, control the production and multiplication of these crops.  

Maize is Kenya’s staple crop and farmers are currently being persuaded to grow Bt maize, based on the argument that it is resistant to pests. However, since farmers will not control the supply and multiplication of the Bt Maize seed, they are likely to face the same seed scarcity that is being experienced by Bt cotton farmers when the suppliers of these seeds pull out of the market

Companies such as Monsanto (now Bayer) are among the world’s largest seed companies and  have been known to push GM innovations on key crops such brinjals, maize and potatoes across the world, their major interest being profits. Allowing these companies to dominate the production and importation market of key crops such as maize is likely to affect the livelihoods of the farmers who, in Kenya, produce about 40-45 million bags of maize every year. These farmers will certainly be competing for market against imports of cheap GM maize from the US which has been pushing to expand its exports of genetically modified food crops into the Kenyan market.

Kenyan imports of GM foods and food crops will also affect our East African neighbours such as Tanzania and Uganda who export their surplus produce to Kenya. With the loss of market comes the loss of interest in farming and the abandonment of land, which in turn could lead to rural-urban migration by populations in search of alternative livelihoods, leaving the door wide open for multinational corporations to buy abandoned land to grow commercial crops for export.

Lifting the GMO ban will also expose farmers to draconian intellectual property laws related to patents held by GMO multinationals. GM seed is patented and this could land the farmers on whose farm GM crops have grown without their knowledge into intellectual property disputes. These farmers are likely to be forced to pay royalties for GM crops that contaminate their farms through pollination or cross breeding. In the United StatesMonsanto (now Bayer) sued hundreds of farmers to protect its patent rights on its GM seeds. In Brazil, Monsanto won a  $ 7.7 billion lawsuit against farmers after the court ruled that farmers cannot save and replant Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready soybeans. In India, the manufacturer of Lays Potato Chips, Pepsico before withdrawing the case had sued four farmers for about KSh15 million for illegally growing its potatoes.

Environmental concerns associated with lifting the ban on GMOs include the loss of our agricultural biodiversity and interference with our country’s ecological balance. GM crops are likely to contaminate non-GM crops through pollination. This could lead to the loss of indigenous varieties of crops such as millet, sorghum and spider plant (sagaa) that are grown in many parts of the country. 

While the Biosafety Act of 2009 provides for risk assessment measures in order to protect human health and the environment from the possible adverse effects of GMOs, in the case of Bt cotton the NBA stipulated that once it was released for commercialisation, the NBA and government agencies would monitor it for 20 years “to assess whether there are post release adverse effects”. Aren’t 20 years too long a period to wait to address any possible effects on human health and the environment? Shouldn’t the risk assessment have been done before the introduction of GMOs in the country for cultivation and commercialisation? There are also no clear liability and redress mechanisms for damage resulting from transboundary movements of the genetically modified living organisms. What happens to the farmers who might be caught up in lawsuits regarding patent rights? Is there any clear legislation on their protection?

Fronting GM seeds as a solution to food insecurity equates to the Kenyan government admitting that Kenya has a seed problem, which is untrue. For all the crops cultivated in Kenya,  more than 78 per cent of the seed used comes from informal seed sources controlled by smallholder farmers. This is despite their existing a lawthat makes it illegal for farmers to share, exchange and sell indigenous seeds. The lifting of the ban on GMOs in Kenya is therefore ill-advised. Food sovereignty and security lies in farmers controlling and breeding their own seeds and having access to proper area-specific storage facilities and appropriate infrastructure.

Access to water is a key factor in addressing food insecurity. Kenya’s fresh water bodies are already choking with chemicals. An exposé aired by the Nation Media Group showed that Lake Victoria, Kenya’s largest freshwater lake, is contaminated by pesticides and fertilisers. Why can’t the government prioritize safeguarding such resources from contamination so that Kenyan farmers can have access to clean water for food production? Or provide water to farming communities for easier food production?

In addition, access to agricultural extension services that provide agro-ecological information is critical to providing information on sustainable farming practices such as ecological and organic farming. Having access to this information is invaluable in that it teaches the farmers to produce more safe food while conserving natural resources such as soil and water.

These practices also minimize the use of harmful agrochemicals and ensure that Kenyans have access to safe and adequate food. Ecological farming practices also minimise soil degradation, including widespread soil acidification due to overuse of chemical fertilisers. Most importantly they help farmers save and share indigenous seeds which is a key aspect of food sovereignty. Therefore, the move to lift the ban on GMOs is only going to send more farmers deeper into debt and poverty, limiting their ability to produce more food and increasing our dependency on imported processed foods that are low in nutrients. It is a move to undermine our food and seed sovereignty and delegate the control of food systems to multinational corporations whose motives are driven by profit. A seed is the lifeline of a generation, those who control seed control the entire generation.

By Claire Nasike

Project Lead, Greenpeace Africa