By Gilbert arap Bor
This could be the big turning-point for biotechnology in agriculture: Deputy President William Ruto has announced that our country will lift its ban on genetically modified foods and has started the process of allowing the commercialisation of GM crops.
The importation ban will end in two months, following consultations within the government, as well as public hearings. Expected soon after will be the release of Bt maize and Bt cotton, following application to the National Biosafety Authority by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.
The goal, said Mr Ruto, is to “maximise agricultural production, improve health services, conserve the environment, and basically improve the living standards of our people”.
That’s exactly what GM crops promise to do: They will help farmers grow more food on less land, helping us to meet the needs of a growing population in a sustainable way, while improving the farmers’ economic well-being. They are an indispensable part of achieving food security and ensuring that fewer herbicides are released in the environment.
So, in the not-too-distant future, we expect to plant GM seeds on Kenyan soil. The first varieties of Bt maize and cotton will be bred to fight insect pests and improve water efficiency. On my small farm in Uasin Gishu, I’ll grow Bt maize as farmers in other parts of the country grow Bt cotton as soon as it is available.
Africa trails the rest of the world in food production. Africans are victims of political instability, inadequate infrastructure, climate change, and extreme poverty. Many of these problems are beyond our immediate control. Yet we’ve compounded them with policies we can control: The longstanding refusal of so many governments to permit the planting of crops that farmers in North and South America have taken for granted for years. Farmers in Burkina Faso and South Africa have enjoyed access to these technologies.
They’ve used them for years, with excellent results. Yet among African nations, they are the exceptions. The rest of us watch from a distance, wishing we could produce more food than we do.
Since 2009, Kenya has understood that biotechnology must be a part of our farming future. The National Biosafety Authority was then created to oversee the development and handling of GM crops. Ever since, we’ve waited for an announcement like the one Mr Ruto made.
As it happens, the ending of the ban marks the beginning of a new waiting period. We shall have to go through a full season before we have an adequate supply of seeds; maybe as long as 18 months.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to hear from the naysayers. They’ll complain that GM crops cause cancer, which is sheer nonsense, as anyone who has looked at the scientific data knows.
They’ll also grumble that GM crops are part of a foreign conspiracy, even though the kinds of crops we’ll grow in Kenya will be designed to confront the challenges we face here.
Our goal as farmers is to grow as much good food and fibre as possible – and we want access to safe technologies that can help us achieve the food security that has proved so elusive on our continent.
Mr Bor grows maize, vegetables and keeps dairy cows on a small-scale farm in Kapseret, Eldoret. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus (firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @gkbor)