Agri-biotech experts call on Kenya to lift ban on GMO imports

Group photo: Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communications Conference 2015

Delegates from 30 countries from around the world, attending an international Agri-biotechnology and Biosafety Communication (ABBC 2015) conference in Nairobi have called on the Government of Kenya to lift a 2-year ban on GMO imports.

Addressing the delegates who comprised farmers, scientists, policymakers, private sector, the media and science communicators, the Principal Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development, Dr Wilson Songa, emphasized the role of agricultural biotechnology in propelling the country towards prosperity.

“To harness this potential, the GMO import ban must be lifted,” he said. In addition, he said that Kenya has adequate capacity to develop and ensure safety of GMO products.

Members of Parliament present called upon the government to release the report by the Ministry of Health task force that was set up to look into the safety of GM foods, following the ban on GMO imports.

The ABBC conference brought together organizations and networks involved in agri-biotechnology and biosafety communication around the world to take stock of the progress and dynamics of agri-biotechnology communication over the past two decades. It was organized by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the National Commission for Science Technology and Innovation among other partners.

One of the key lessons was that agri-biotechnology and biosafety communications must be simplified and messages delivered in appropriate languages for different stakeholders to make impact.

The delegates came up with the following Nairobi Declaration 2015:

We, the participants of the International Conference on Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communication, held on 13-14 April 2015 in Nairobi, representing the academic and research community, civil society, law makers and policy advisors, the media, farmers and other stakeholders drawn from 30 countries across the world, collectively issue the following statement resulting from this conference:

Whereas

  1. The world faces unique and particular food security challenges in future, as the human population increases towards a likely 9.6 billion by 2050 and climate change raises additional problems for agriculture in terms of water and temperature stress, increased disasters and extreme weather;
  2. Some progress has been made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals on extreme poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality and food security. Much work remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all countries enjoy the full opportunity of healthy and sustainable access to food;
  3. Biotechnology and genetic engineering, while not being the only solutions to these challenges, offer great potential in addressing many specific concerns in food production, including micro-nutrient deficiencies, productivity and yield gaps, pest and disease problems;
  4. There exists an international scientific consensus that the ‘genetic modification’ process itself does not raise any risks over conventional breeding approaches;
  5. The debate around genetically modified products continues and is often characterized by emotive and misleading information about purported dangers that are not supported by any scientific evidence;
  6. Highly restrictive policy and regulatory environments exist in parts of the world, greatly hampering the capacity of farmers to access innovations that will improve farm productivity, household incomes and food security;

We hereby declare our commitment and determination

  1. To work collectively to improve the communications environment, including the use of the latest as well as traditional communication strategies to ensure effectiveness.
  2. To work inclusively, with all stakeholders, including those opposed to this technology, in an effort to build consensus and common understanding.
  3. To promote choice, so that farmers, consumers and other end-users can make informed decisions that reflect their best interests.
  4. To address the concerns of people at all levels, to ensure the widest participation possible.
  5. To demonstrate how agricultural production challenges can be tackled using biotechnology, and how it can directly contribute to food and nutrition security, poverty alleviation, job creation and sustainable economic development.
  6. To support credible scientists who are most trusted by the public and governments to be effective communicators and to have a closer relationship with the media and policymakers to ensure that scientifically-informed messages reach target audiences.

In particular, we gratefully acknowledge the active participation of Members of the Kenya National Assembly and many senior government representatives who participated in this conference and welcome their invaluable inputs to ensure the current ban on importation and consumption of GM foods in Kenya is lifted.

Discussions on research and innovation in biotechnology for Africa’s development

Calestous Juma delivers his lecture at KICC, Nairobi
Calestous Juma delivers his lecture at KICC, Nairobi

Earlier this week on Tuesday afternoon, I was down at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre for a public lecture by Prof Calestous Juma on the topic, Rebooting African Economies:Innovation for Economic Development. Prof Juma is a professor of the Practice of International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School. The lecture was sponsored by the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and the US government.

Rebooting African Economies

Below is the abstract of the lecture:

“The role of modern biotechnology in the economic transformation of developing countries has become the subject of intense academic inquiry and public policy discourse. There is increasing debate about the potential contribution of biotechnology not only in Kenya, but also globally. This debate has taken two divergent perspectives. Proponents of biotechnology see it as the only viable solution to Africa’s socio-economic problems. On the other hand, critics of biotechnology application treat it with caution and suspicion. This public lecture provides a platform to interrogate this issue and chart the way forward on biotechnology for the East African region in terms of policy and research.”

A section of the audience at Calestous Juma's lecture
A section of the audience at the lecture

During his introduction, Prof Juma talked about a series of “waves of innovation” each of which was associated with an expansion of economic space. He sees the next innovation wave as focusing on issues such as the green economy, renewable energy, biotechnology and sustainability, and Africa stands to benefit from this new innovation wave.

Key to taking advantage of this will be investment in the life sciences to help Africa leap-frog ahead of the front-runner countries that benefited from the previous waves. The rapid decline in the cost of generating research knowledge (e.g. cost of DNA sequencing has drastically reduced in the past 4 years), the spread of high-speed internet connectivity and the mobile economy boom are among the drivers of Africa’s development in science, technology and innovation.

The main focus of the talk was on the economic, environmental and health impacts of biotechnology supported by examples of peer-reviewed research findings.

Here are some of the key points I noted [I’ve added the hyperlinks to the source material for those interested in reading further]:

  • There’s a high rate of adoption of biotech crops globally with the highest rate in Asia. Though the actual hectarage may be disputed by some, there is agreement that there is a general trend towards increased adoption of GM crops globally.
  • The European Union has documented 10 years of EU-funded research on GMOs, a report that builds on a previous 15-year study. This covers over 130 research projects, providing a rich base of research evidence on risk assessment of GMOs (Link to the PDF report: A decade of EU-funded GMO research, 2001-2010)
  • In the USA, unintended consequences of GM crops were found to be beneficial. A study by Hutchison et al. (2010) published in the journal Science reports that Bt corn had a beneficial effect on neighbouring non-Bt corn farms whereby pesticide use was reduced. This was replicated in China where Bt cotton suppressed the pink bollworm on non-Bt cotton (Wan et al., 2010).
  • A review by Snell et al. (2012) published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology examined the health impacts of GM crops and found that existing GM crops and non-GM crops have similar risk profiles. In other words, GM crops and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent and can be safely used as food.

After the talk, there was a vibrant question & answer session that saw contributions from a lawyer, an MP, university lecturers, a student and an NGO representative, among others.

The main eye-opener for me was in relation to the potential applications of polymer science and technology and nanotechnology. Prof Juma gave an example of how nanotechnology can be used to develop a material that absorbs water that is available only to a growing plant… imagine the potential this holds for boosting dryland farming!

Admittedly, nanotechnology is still a new area for me but one well worth reading more about! In fact, a representative from the National Council for Science and Technology mentioned that they are on track towards developing a nanotechnology policy for Kenya so much so that they’ve incorporated it into their performance contracts for the coming year. Looks like nanotech is the next big thing in science, technology and innovation!

Another key take-home message was that a lot of biotechnology research in Kenya is financed by public funds from the National Council of Science and Technology and is being done in our public universities (Kenyatta University, for example, has a Biosafety Level 2 lab)  by Kenyan scientists for the benefit of the Kenyan people. This effectively debunks the oft-cited line that the agri-biotechnology research agenda in Kenya is largely in the hands of foreign multinational companies (read Monsanto).

I had a brief chat with a researcher from Kenyatta University who is working on genetic modification of sweetpotato and cassava to make them pest resistant and thus reduce the levels of post-harvest losses. Both these staple crops are important energy sources in Kenya and much of Africa and boosting their productivity would go a long way in improving not just nutrition and food security but also the incomes of the smallholder farmers who grow these crops.

Calestous Juma talks to journalists after the lecture
Calestous Juma talks to journalists after the lecture

All in all, it was an afternoon well spent. I learned a lot of new stuff and also got a lot of links to reading material. Prof was in a rush to head off to another meeting but the press wouldn’t let him go and kept asking him endless questions so I barely managed to say a quick ‘Hello’ and shake his hand before his JKUAT hosts whisked him away! Thankfully, he is quite accessible on Twitter (@Calestous) so the conversations continued on that platform!

The final word from Prof: “There are more risks if Africa does nothing than if it does something… and that something is adoption of biotechnology”.

INASP marks its 20th anniversary with a symposium on research communication for development

On 20 June 2012, the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, or INASP in short, held a symposium to mark its 20th anniversary. Presentations and discussions focused on research communication and avenues to improve and enhance research uptake for development.

INASP is “an international development charity that supports global research communication with particular focus on the needs of developing and emerging countries. Its goal is to contribute to sustainable and equitable development by strengthening the research communication cycle (availability, access, use, creation and uptake).”

Featured presentations were made under the following themes:

  • Technical solutions to information access: Build it and they will come?
  • Delivering scholarly literature: The world at your fingertips?
  • Doing the right thing: Trust me, I’m a policy maker?

The presentations are now available from the symposium website. Worth checking out for view points on open access, sharing of research knowledge and putting research into use.

The case for a science news service for Africa

From the SciDevNet website comes an article that highlights a proposal for an African science news service to increase the coverage of research by African scientists and of relevance to the region.

The proposal is contained in a new report, The Need for an African Science News Service, published by the UK National Commission for UNESCO on 1 June 2012.

Read the SciDevNet article here (08 June 2012)

Featured resource: FAO food security communications toolkit

As countries in the Horn of Africa, and more recently in the Sahel region, continue to grapple with the challenge of food and nutritional insecurity, professionals in charge of developing and implementing policies and strategies to address the problem need to be able to effectively communicate these strategies to various audiences.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has published a  communications toolkit to help food security professionals to do just that.

Below is the abstract:

Food security professionals increasing realize that they must use communications strategically for their work to have a maximum impact. While most organizations have invested heavily in food security analysis and research, many still need to enhance their communications to ensure their findings reach their intended users and action is taken.

This toolkit is geared to helping food security professionals develop a communication strategy and communicate more effectively with their target audiences. Specific sections of the toolkit focus on policy makers and the media, because of the important role they play in implementing and influencing food security policies.

The toolkit also looks at specific information products such as policy briefs, reports and early warning bulletins, and suggests ways to structure and improve them. A section on writing effectively, which focuses on grammar and style, makes sure that written documents are easy to read.

Finally, the toolkit gives tips for using the internet, social media and Web 2.0 tools as these technologies offer unprecedented opportunities for engaging in two way dialogues with global audiences. The toolkit also includes readymade templates and dozens of tips and tricks distilled from many years of experience.

While aimed at professionals working in food security related fields, the lessons in this toolkit can easily be applied to many other fields.

The communications toolkit may be downloaded at this web page: http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/i2195e/i2195e00.htm?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=tweet&utm_campaign=knowledge

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.

Science communication: bridging the research-information gap between scientists and the public

Scientists carry out research for the benefit of society at large. The communication of scientific research results has traditionally been restricted to publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals or presenting findings at scientific conferences. These media tend to lock out the general public, either because members of the public lack access to scientific journals or they simply cannot sift through the technical jargon to understand the basics of the scientists’ messages.

Because scientific research is often supported by taxpayers’ funds, the public has a right to be informed about the work that scientists are doing. This is especially so for controversial scientific issues, such as genetic modification of food crops, or research on global health concerns such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. Young African scientists are often not trained in science communication and thus lack the necessary expertise to tailor their highly technical messages to suit a variety of general audiences. This has resulted in an information gap between scientists and the public.

Following the growth of the Internet age and the increasing visibility of science in local and regional mass media, several platforms have arisen for the communication of science to general audiences. This [fairly long] post explores some of the challenges that young African scientists encounter in communicating science and, drawing on examples from the eastern Africa region, identifies some opportunities that may help these scientists to effectively bridge the information divide that exists between them and the public.

What is science communication?

A universally accepted standard definition of the term “science communication” is difficult to come by. However, in this context we may loosely define science communication as the use of various media to share scientific information that has been adapted to specific audiences in order to increase knowledge, enhance awareness, or influence changes in attitude or behaviour. As with other forms of communication, maintaining the accuracy of the message is critical to successful science communication.

According to the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), science communication is about dialogue, engagement, respect for audience and context, science and how it matters to society, and scientists as key actors. Science communication also involves making science a part of everyday life, bridging the gap between science and society and making science accessible to non-scientists (SAASTA, 2007).

Traditionally, the primary channel for scientists to communicate the findings of their research work is through scientific journals articles. Despite the fact that this channel specifically targets a limited audience comprising mainly professionals, the scientific journal still has an important role to play as a form of research quality control through the peer-review system so that scientists can uphold their professional credibility as well as the credibility of their research.

However, the journal article should not be seen as the be-all and end-all. Rather, it should be seen as an objective, reliable basis for reaching out to other less-specialized audiences who cannot access scientific journals or who may find it difficult to understand the highly technical language contained in the typical scientific journal article. Such general audiences may be better placed to make practical use of the knowledge emerging from the scientist’s published work.

The scientist’s wider audiences may include academicians from other disciplines, governments, policymakers, donors/funding organizations, industry stakeholders, the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), students, members of parliament and individual stakeholders from among the general public (farmers, consumers, etc.). Consequently, the media used to communicate science to these general audiences are wide-ranging and include the following: policy briefs, public forums, newspaper articles, TV feature documentaries, radio interviews, science exhibitions, etc.

Why do we need science communication?

Effective sharing of scientific information is especially necessary in today’s world because scientific information is now more accessible and visible to the general public, thanks to the Internet era that has revolutionized the sharing of information.  Several platforms for sharing of information have also developed rapidly and people are more interested in how they can use scientific information to improve their lives.

Science communication is a useful tool not only in contributing to the body of scientific knowledge but also in raising public awareness and understanding of science. As a bridge between science and society, science communication is important because the public has needs to understand how scientific discoveries and innovations impact their lives; such knowledge will help members of the public to make informed decisions.

Communicating of science is also useful for linking research and policy. Science communication provides policymakers with credible, objective evidence on which to base their policy decisions. Policymakers rarely have time to study detailed research reports and yet they are expected to make policy decisions on the basis of research findings. By summarizing the key research findings in form of a policy brief, a scientist can ensure that policymakers receive scientific information in a form that is readily understandable and useable.

Science communication can also be used to stimulate public debate and allows for an informed public to make rational, informed choices on controversial issues touching on science and technology that directly affect the general public. A good example is the ongoing debate on whether Africa as a whole should adopt commercial production of genetically modified food crops despite the existence of a grey area regarding the biosafety and environmental impacts of GMOs.

Additionally, by reaching out to schools and using innovative and fun ways to share the wonders of science, scientists can stimulate pupils’ interest in science and technology research and thus help to nurture the next generation of scientists.

Elements of effective science communication

Credibility: The research information should be valid and credible. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals offers scientists a reliable anchor for their professional research credibility.

Objectivity: Science communication should be based on robust and objective scientific research data.

Simplicity: The message should be clear, simple and readily understood without loss of accuracy. Scientists should be prepared to explain or clarify any points of uncertainty or controversy.

Honesty: Scientists should honestly acknowledge any existing gaps in scientific knowledge and not seek to provide answers that the research data do not explicitly present.

Audience-focused: Messages should be suitably packaged to suit the audience, taking into account the audience’s knowledge base and the desired outcome of the communication.

Human interest element: Science communication should answer the audience’s question “Why is this important to me?” The audience needs to appreciate the value of the message at a personal level.

Obstacles to effective science communication

Africa as a whole is in need of effective science communication in order to enhance the development of science and technology and, ultimately, sustainable economic development for the continent. Several challenges and obstacles stand in the way of this goal; these can be loosely grouped as obstacles relating to awareness, access, capacity and institutions.

Obstacles related to awareness

  • Lack of awareness on available science communication resources, networks etc.
  • Low level of awareness by scientists on why they should communicate their research to general audiences
  • Lack of knowledge on senior scientists who can mentor young scientists in science communication
  • Widely varying levels of science literacy among the public
  • Lack of understanding on how the media works

Obstacles related to access

  • Unreliable internet connectivity (low speeds, intermittent connection etc.) hinders efficient electronic communication
  • Few open access journals thus literature review is hampered
  • Individual or institutional journal subscriptions not always affordable

Obstacles related to capacity

  • Highly specialized technical and analytical skills not matched by skills and expertise in science communication
  • Specialized advanced degree courses in science communication are not offered in universities in the eastern and central Africa region
  • Science communication courses available abroad may not be affordable
  • Poor scientific writing skills resulting in low rates of publication in high-impact peer-reviewed journals
  • Lack of training on how to handle press interviews  on TV or radio

Obstacles related to institutions

  • Institutional bureaucracy and red tape: young scientists may be viewed as too junior to communicate with media; institutional policy may keep the young scientist out of media limelight despite playing a key role in the research.
  • Weak linkages between scientists and the media; this can lead to scientists’ fear that the media will distort the scientific message
  • Relatively lower media profile given to science compared, for example, to politics or sports

Opportunities to bridge the research information gap

Online resources

  • The Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) is a free access website that provides news and information on science and technology for the developing world. SciDev.Net hosts an electronic guide (e-guide) to science communication which has helpful resources on communicating science to general audiences, dealing with the media, interacting with policymakers etc. Links to other online tools and resources are also available.

Linkages with networks of science communicators

  • Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) in Kenya is an association of communicators who are specialized in science, environment, agriculture, health, technology and development. This network aims to improve science journalism in Kenya and the region by promoting the development of environment, health, technology and agriculture communication through interactions between journalists and scientists. MESHA currently has about 50 members drawn from the eastern Africa region.
  • The Research and Media Network is an online social network of journalists, scientists, press officers and others who communicate about research in sectors such as science, health, environment, agriculture, water, energy, development, poverty, sustainability and communications. The network aims at bringing people together to improve communication of research findings. With over 800 members in 95 countries so far, this network offers a useful platform for creation of linkages and sharing of ideas, information and expertise between scientists and professional science communicators.

Media platforms (examples from Kenya)

  • Daily Nation newspaper: For several years, Kenya’s leading daily newspaper — the Daily Nation — carried a weekly science magazine called Horizon in the Thursday issue of the paper. Although the coverage was relatively limited (usually 4 pages or so), it was a useful platform for news and feature stories on science, health and the environment. Sadly, this magazine is no longer featured after the newspaper re-aligned its editorial content some months back. (This is one of the challenges science editors face, I guess, where the business objective of maximizing sales determines what topics get the most coverage… and in most of Africa, politicians invariably get priority coverage over science topics).
  • The Standard newspaper: Second to the Daily Nation in readership, the Standard features a weekly science column called Panorama which, like Horizon, is a 4-page magazine carrying short news stories and features, though most of the articles are reprinted from other sources like BBC. Perhaps a pointer to the dearth of qualified science journalists in our local media houses…
  • Television: Several Kenyan TV stations now run regular feature programmes on science, health and the environment, usually on weekly basis. However, the depth of coverage is often lacking. For instance, with all the hullabaloo and debate about GMOs, one would expect our TV stations to host a moderated live debate, bringing together the pro- and anti-GM lobbyists to state their case for or against the use of GM to breed for drought-resistant maize, for instance. Such an approach would help the public to benefit from informed debate, instead of the current ‘soft’ approach which involves a Q&A by the newscaster on the ‘usual’ topics (nutrition, diets…) which often sounds scripted.

Going forward…

It’s high time that research institutions and universities proactively supported the development of science communication by taking steps to go above and beyond merely publishing research results in peer-reviewed journals but also reaching out to general audiences and communicating the same in a language that they (the public) can readily understand.

Schools of journalism and institutes of mass communication should seek to revise their curricula to introduce courses on science communication tailored to meet local requirements. The same goes for undergraduate and masters courses in the life sciences; our universities need to empower science graduates to be able to effectively communicate their science to a wide variety of audiences using different channels, including social media tools.