GMO debate in Kenya: Is public awareness adequate?

In the past couple of months, the Kenyan newspapers have highlighted several news stories on the subject of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and, specifically, GM maize.

Following the signing into law of Kenya’s Biosafety Act in February 2009, it was only a matter of time before GMOs moved into the media spotlight. And the current drought situation in the Greater Horn of Africa with the attendant food shortages have led to much debate on whether or not Kenya should import GM maize to meet the shortfall.

The usual arguments for and against GMOs have been bandied around once more, in letters to the editor, news articles, feature stories as well as paid-up advertisements in our newspapers.

But amidst all the heat of the GMO debate, the one thing that is evident is the low level of awareness among the general public on (1) what GM technology is and how it is applied to crops (not just the staple crop maize); (2) published studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) on safety assessments; the nature of GM research and how this progresses naturally from lab/greenhouse research to confined field trials to open field trials; what GM research has actually been carried out in Kenya and the current status of GM research projects in the country.

I think that part of the reason for the low levels of public awareness is that our scientists have not done enough to fill this knowledge gap by communicating this complex yet important scientific innovation to the general public so that they can understand and appreciate the potential benefits and risks of the technology, and thus be able to take informed decisions for themselves.

And because nature abhors a vacuum, our ever-vocal politicians, who never miss an opportunity to speak where there’s a captive audience, have quickly filled this knowledge gap with their largely uninformed utterances about GMOs, aimed at scaremongering and instilling fear among the public.

Open, accurate, evidence-based communication about GM technology is what we need so that all stakeholders are adequately informed. Short of that, the GM debate will continue to generate more heat than light.