Maize is a staple in Kenya and many African countries / Photo: Reuters

By Coletta Wanjohi

The Kenyan government’s decision to reintroduce genetically modified crops has sparked a huge debate over health concerns in the country, where an estimated 5.4 million people are facing acute food shortages following the worst drought in four decades.

The government’s move is facing legal challenges, and at least three cases are being heard by the courts in Kenya.

In October 2022, the government of President William Ruto lifted a decade-long ban on the cultivation and import of genetically-modified (GMO) maize, the staple diet in the country with a population of over 54 million people.

Moses Kuria, the Kenya Cabinet Secretary for Trade, defended the controversial decision. “We have deliberately decided to allow GMOs into this country until we are satisfied that we have enough maize,” Kuria had said in October.

The Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya, is one of the entities that have sued the Kenyan government for attempting to lift the ban.

“The government made a unilateral decision without proper public consultation,” explains Anne Maina, the National coordinator for Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya.

“In 2015 we went to court again, and the ruling that was made by the court then was that before GMOs are introduced into the country there has to be proper public participation, education and public awareness so that never happened.”

“Our current status is that we went to court after lifting of the ban and the judge returned the ban before they make a ruling in a court case,” explains Anne.

A recent survey by the non-profit Route for Food shows 57 percent of Kenyans were unwilling to consume GM crops over health concerns that have blighted the sector globally for decades.

Losing control of food system

The remaining 43 percent said they had no problem with it. Route for Food world towards ensuring the right to food in Kenya.

The International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization, warns that more than 11 million people – including children, pregnant women and lactating mothers face acute malnutrition in 2023.

The pastoral communities in the majority of the 23 arid and semi-arid regions of the country, have already lost over 2.4 million livestock in the last few months.

The current drought that began in 2020 is considered the most severe in 40 years. Designer crop GMO plants are produced in the lab with specific traits, such as resistance to drought or pests.

Scientists copy the gene of the designer plant and insert it into the DNA of the crop. The plant is then grown in the laboratory to ensure it has adopted the targeted trait before being planted in greenhouses, then re-planted in small fields for testing before being rolled out for mass plantation.

A section of farmers and environmentalists cite scientific studies which claim that lab-grown crops contribute to health and environmental problems, including herbicide residue on GMOs.

Helen Kahaso Dena of the environmental campaign group Greenpeace Africa says that Kenyan will lose control of their food system by adopting GM crops.

“Once GMO is allowed, it creates a dead cycle. Farmers will have to buy seeds from multi-national companies who own exclusive rights to these GM seeds….so essentially, we are entrusting our food system to multinational corporations,” Dena tells TRT Afrika.

Staple for Kenyans

Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy, employing almost 80 percent of Kenyans, mostly in rural areas. Small-scale production represents roughly 75 percent of the total agricultural output in the country.

Food for thought Maize is Kenya’s primary food and is found on dining tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner in different forms.

It is consumed as boiled corn, especially right after harvest seasons. The grains are also dried and ground to make flour.

One of the most popular maize flour dishes is ‘ugali’ – a mushy dough served with vegetables or meat.

The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) says that 11 metric tonnes of certified GM maize seed are ready to be distributed to farmers in 2023 and planted on 500,000 acres as a pilot project.

This will pave the way for the commercialisation of GM maize by private companies. Three maize varieties have been tested and await cabinet approval for a countrywide roll-out.

However, Kenyans are pushing back against the government. Mary Wesonga, a 41-year-old mother of three in Nakuru country, is planning to venture into small-scale farming to avoid consuming GM maize when it hits the market.

She has always bought maize off the shelf without any worries. But not anymore. “I want to get a piece of land and plant my own maize, so that I don’t have to consume this genetically modified maize.

They say it is not good,” Wesonga tells TRT Afrika. She is pinning her hopes on people who lease out their land for an average of US $100 annually.

Her neighbour Millie Khalai, 63, agrees. For decades, her small kitchen garden has served the vegetables and maize needed by the family of three – she lives with her two granddaughters.

“This is what our parents taught us, to grow our own maize and beans and replant the seeds from the previous harvest,” Khalai tells TRT Afrika.

Her maize plantation gives her three bags of corn annually and she sets aside the best grains for the next planting season.

“I heard on the radio that it is maize that they will bring through this GM, so I have my own maize that I grow from natural seeds. I will not need to eat that one. I don’t want that maize,” she says.

Safe solutions

The debate has even turned political, with opposition leader Raila Odinga castigating the government over what he calls a “rubbish” decision.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization too has expressed doubt over the efficacy of the move.

“Given the cost of transgenic maize seed, the lack of adequate supply channels, and lack of economic incentives for smallholders to grow such maize, there is currently a low probability that the technology would be used in a sustainable manner by smallholder maize farmers in Africa,” it said.

‘A quick fix’ KALRO, however, insists that GMO crops are safe. “GMOs have been grown for almost 30 years with no verified health problems being reported,” KALRO director general Eliyud Kireger says.

“Scientifically, GMO is proven to be safe for food, feed and the environment and is currently approved for cultivation in about 70 countries worldwide,” he adds.

Once rolled out, Kenya will join countries like South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana and Eswatini that have allowed the consumption of genetically modified food.

Experts say the government must find other avenues for “safe solutions” to ensure food security in Kenya.

“If we want to fix this, we must ensure that we are providing water for farmers because essentially that is the problem,” says Dena of Greenpeace.

“A lot of the farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture, whenever there is no rain, there is no food. If we look for quick fixes, we shall have quick fixes now. But what happens in the next two or three years?” Dena adds.