BY KAREKE MBIUKI
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals produced from organisms that have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by means of genetic engineering. This allows for the selective introduction of desired traits into the plant or animal; such as increased resistance to drought or disease, earlier maturation, increased yields and enhanced nutrient content.
There is broad scientific consensus that GMOs and GM foods pose no greater risk than organic or conventional food products. However, despite the plethora of scientific studies disproving the purported environmental and safety concerns surrounding GM foods; myths and ideological hysteria about GM foods abound. This is despite the fact that there has never been a single case of ill effects in humans or animals associated with the consumption of GM foods.
Concerns about GMOs and GM Foods are entirely based on opponents stating that “we do not know what the long term effects of GM products will be.” The argument is disingenuous in the extreme given that GM food is not new technology. GM foods have been on sale since as early as 1994 in some countries. Surely if there were to be any negative effects from consumption of GM foods then they would have been apparent in the two decades that have elapsed since their introduction.
In Kenya, GM Foods were banned by the Government in November, 2012 by the then Public Health Minister, Honourable Beth Mugo. The Government’s decision was not based on any concrete evidence of harm or scientific concern but rather it was entirely based on the unsupported reference towards potential harm in the far off future.
As Kenya continues to bury its head in the sand like the proverbial Ostrich, all around us countries who have not succumbed to superstition and hysteria are benefiting from the immense advantages of GM Foods, particularly with regard to cereals and beans, which are the backbone of Kenya’s national diet. Highly increased yields and far greater drought resistance mean that GM foods are the most viable option for creating food security in countries like ours which face food supply challenges. Old technology methods such as selective breading simply cannot achieve the same results as genetic engineering.
The environmental and safety fears of GMO opponents can be easily addressed. Kenya would not be inventing the wheel if we were to allow production and/or consumption of GM Foods in our country. The GMO practices have been refined and perfected over the two decades that the technology has been providing foods for consumers and so it is relatively easy to ensure that GMOs do not spread and re-define the wider ecological system. This reality has been successfully practiced in the USA for example; with GMO farms being located in close proximity to organic and conventional farms without any spread of the artificially created genetic material.
Indeed GM foods are actually more beneficial and less harmful on the environment than conventional foods. This is because they require far less pesticides and utilize less water. In terms of sustainable and eco-friendly cultivation, GM foods are far more preferable than conventional or even organic foods.
Ultimately, Kenyans should be given the choice as to whether to consume GM foods or not. All over the world, GM foods are prominently labelled as such, a practice that we can easily adopt in Kenya. Those among our people who want cheaper, higher quality food that is cultivated in a manner that cause the least amount of drain on natural resources would then be free to consume GM foods; while those opposed to GMOs on whatever grounds could continue consuming only conventional or organic foods as is their right.
Kenya does not have the luxury of ignoring this safe and immensely beneficial technology. As a country we face an acute food challenge, despite our fertile soils and favourable climate. The supply deficit in terms of our staple foods in particular could be solved relatively quickly and cheaply simply by introducing GMOs into our farming practice, resulting not only in greater yields but also less expenditure on pesticides. Additionally, GMOs are less susceptible to the vagaries of swings in climatic conditions particularly drought than conventional foods, thus ensuring a more steady supply of food in our country.
When cellular telephones were first introduced into Kenya, I recall that they were met with the same type of baseless opposition and broad hysteria as is faced by GMOs. There was talk that mobile phones cause cancer, infertility and even insanity! Luckily for Kenya, science prevailed over superstition and now mobile phones are a common and indispensable part of life.
Similarly, the GM food debate needs to be conducted in a sober and rational manner. Kenyans should not be subjected to scaremongering but rather scientific, environmental and food security facts should be put objectively on the table. Let the opponents of GMO technology present a factual case against this decades old technology rather than the current campaign of unfounded “what ifs.”
However, we should remember that as the well-fed political and media classes (for whom food is plentiful and costs only a tiny fraction of their monthly income) chatter away about GMOs, the vast majority of Kenyans are hungry despite there being a simple, safe, cheap and easily accessible way of providing them with safe and high quality food in plenty.
(Mbiuki is the MP for Maara and Vice Chair of the Agriculture Committee of the National Assembly)