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Good Crop, Bad Crop

By on August 22, 2014

by Francis Nang’ayo, senior manager for regulatory affairs at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF)

NAIROBI – Kenya’s ban on imports of genetically modified (GM) crops reflects a troubling trend in a country traditionally seen as an agricultural innovator. The move also represents a giant leap backward for a continent that often struggles to ensure its own food security. A rational, scientific approach must triumph over prejudice, fear, and speculation. And Kenya can lead the way.

GM crops (also called genetically engineered or biotechnology crops) have repeatedly been proven to be safe, and are used successfully to boost agricultural productivity worldwide. But bureaucracy, propaganda, and misinformation are preventing millions of African farmers, including in Kenya, from accessing a technology that can improve livelihoods and help to redress food shortages.

More than one million Kenyans currently rely on food aid as a result of the country’s cereal shortfall. The country’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network notes that already-high maize prices will continue to rise until the end of the year, further straining food security and economic performance. As Kenya struggles to feed its people and stabilize its economy, GM technology should be a welcome means to increase yields and incomes, benefiting farmers, consumers, and the environment.

The few African countries that do grow GM crops have reaped significant rewards. The introduction of GM maize, soybean, and cotton in South Africa, for example, helped raise farmers’ incomes by more than $1 billion from 1998 to 2012. This was largely the result of GM maize varieties, which increased annual yields by 32%, and now represent nearly 90% of the country’s maize crop. Indeed, despite soaring output, South Africa still cannot export enough maize to keep pace with global demand.

Similarly, Burkina Faso’s farmers now grow a GM cotton variety that naturally resists a destructive insect, and thus requires less expensive pesticides. The switch from traditional cotton to the GM variety has helped increase yields by more than 18%, earning farmers $61 more per hectare and raising $1.2 billion in agricultural revenues in 2013 alone.

As an agricultural technology pioneer, Kenya’s farmers would undoubtedly enjoy similar returns. Three-quarters of Kenya’s food is grown by small-scale farmers – the type that produce more than 90% of the world’s GM crops. Kenyans are already expected to benefit enormously from new GM varieties, such as insect-resistant maize, that are being developed by local scientists.

Moreover, Kenya is one of the few African countries with a robust regulatory framework that can review and approve new crop varieties. Kenya’s 2009 Biosafety Act established the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), one of the first such bodies on the continent. Yet, despite early advances in the field, Kenya’s battle for GM crops has been unnecessarily political. In 2012, the cabinet banned GM crop imports without even consulting the NBA, a decision based on a widely denounced, and since-retracted, study that falsely linked GM foods with cancer.

More recently, Kenya’s government appointed a special taskforce to investigate biotechnology. Its findings have not yet been made public, but anti-GM comments by the taskforce’s chair suggest further confusion on the issue, threatening to leave farmers, scientists, and the public in limbo at a time when GM crops are most needed.

A clear opportunity to feed the population is being squandered as a result of politics and bureaucracy, and Kenya, unfortunately, is not alone in Africa in this regard. Badly needed biosafety legislation in Nigeria and Uganda, for example, has already been delayed.

Much of the problem lies with a small group of anti-GM activists who object to the technology on “moral” grounds. They typically claim that GM crops are unsafe – a view flatly rejected by the scientific community over the last two decades. The World Health Organization has also confirmed that “no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods.” Indeed, every new GM crop variety must meet rigorous health, environmental, and efficacy standards.

Although perhaps well intentioned, these activists, together with a few misinformed policymakers, are setting back agricultural technology and productivity across Africa. To be sure, GM crops are no panacea, but they are an important tool in achieving food security and economic prosperity.

That is why decisions about the health and safety of new crop varieties should be based on scientific evidence, not driven by political wrangling and baseless “moral” arguments. By taking an evidence-based approach to policymaking, Kenya’s authorities can improve millions of lives at home and set an invaluable precedent for the whole continent.

Project syndicate

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