KENYA – Top Kenyan scientists from four public universities want the controversial 2011 ban on consumption of genetically modified organisms (GMO) lifted, arguing that biotechnology offers the country the best way out of perennial hunger and malnutrition.
The scientists from biotechnology departments of the University of Nairobi (UoN), Egerton, Kenyatta (KU) and Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT) told a parliamentary committee last Friday that GM products are the ultimate solution to food insecurity in Africa, and whose consumption needs to be urgently allowed.
The university dons, led by Egerton University vice chancellor James Tuitoek, said it was ironical that the government continues to invest millions of shillings in research at the public universities while restricting the use of what comes out of it.
The researchers said government funding to universities through the Science and Technology Development Act had increased significantly, making it imperative that the products of that effort are used to tackle national challenges such as malnutrition and hunger.
“We were given Sh18 million to develop new varieties of sweet potatoes and we are using biotechnology to develop transgenic maize and cassava. It is not right for the same government to ban the use of the same products,” Dr Richard Oduor of Kenyatta University told the MPs.
“The universities’ stand is that GMOs are safe for consumption. Our support for GMO is based on solid science not commercial or personal interest,” he said.
Prof Tuitoek said the responsibility of the government lay in strengthening institutions for regulation of GM food chains not blocking it.
The scientists told the National Assembly’s committee on Agriculture that the universities applied rigorous standards during production, testing and approval of GMO crops by the biosafety regulator to ensure their fitness for human consumption.
“We know that there have been controversies surrounding consumption of GM foods from various pressure groups but we can assure you that there is nothing sinister in the work we do,” Prof Tuitoek told MPs.
Richard Mulwa, an associate professor of Horticulture at Egerton University, said scientists involved in the production of GMOs ensure substances that are toxic to people or animals are removed before they are released to the market.
“Kenyans should have confidence in the capacity of local experts producing GMO products and the internal regulatory bodies to ensure their safety,” he said.
The Public Health ministry, then headed by Beth Mugo, imposed a ban on importation and local production of GM products in 2011 as a precautionary measure following reports of harm by certain research groups.
A taskforce that the minister appointed at the time recommended that more research be done on usage of GMOs since there was no substantive information on their harmfulness.
The team of scientists, who included Joel Ochieng (Centre for Biotechnology, UoN), Richard Oduor (KU) and Cecilia Mweu (JKUAT) faulted the taskforce report, saying it was influenced by anti-GMO interests.
The MPs took the scientists to task over their disagreements on the subject of GMOs, noting that the taskforce that advised Mrs Mugo was made up of experts from the same universities.
Mumias East MP Benjamin Washiali sought to know why the scholars held divergent opinions on an important issue such as the safety of GMOs if the views were informed by pure science.
“You are all scientists but you cannot agree on this very important issue. We cannot ask the government to lift the ban if you can’t convince us of the safety of GMOs,” Mr Washiali said.
The committee has been collecting views from the public on the safety of GMOs and is expected to compile a report for tabling in Parliament in the coming months.
The universities’ team described the government ban on GMOs as a blow to students pursuing biotechnology courses and an obstacle to the development of new plant and animal varieties that could help Kenya deal with its perennial food shortages.
Dr Oduor revealed that the universities have set up a Kenya Universities Biotechnology consortium to unite all researchers working in the field of GMO research.
Countries such as Tanzania and Burkina Faso have embraced the use of GM foods and the dons expressed fear that Kenya, being the highest food producer in East Africa, may end up lagging behind if it does not move fast in adopting scientific innovations in food production.