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.

African Development Bank and IFPRI publish report on the status of agri-biotechnology in Africa

Agricultural biotechnology has been used to address constraints in agriculture and has the potential to make a major contribution to the overall goal of sustainable intensification.

The adoption of agricultural biotechnology, and specifically genetically modified (GM) crops, by many African countries has been quite limited to date, however.

To further inform the debate over agricultural biotechnology, a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the African Development Bank collects current information on the status of biotechnology in Africa—with an emphasis on GM crops—and assesses the opportunities offered by and constraints on adoption.

The authors provide information about the region’s limited financial, technical, regulatory, and legal capacities while additionally focusing on the role of trade concerns and conflicting information as limiting factors that affect adoption.

The authors also identify several initiatives that could help overcome these obstacles, such as increasing public investments in agricultural biotechnology research and development; improving regulatory frameworks and regulatory capacity; and developing an effective and broad-based communications strategy.

These and other recommendations should be useful to policymakers, development specialists, and others who are concerned about the potential role that biotechnology could play in Africa as an additional tool for sustainable agriculture development.

Access the report, GM agricultural technologies for Africa: A state of affairs

GMOs in the pipeline: Have your say in an FAO e-mail conference

From 5 November to 2 December 2012 the FAO Biotechnology Forum is hosting its next e-mail conference on “GMOs in the pipeline: Looking to the next five years in the crop, forestry, livestock, aquaculture and agro-industry sectors in developing countries“.

Its goal is to inform the debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the pipeline, considering the specific kind of GMOs that are likely to be commercialised in developing countries over the next five years (that is, before the end of 2017) and to discuss the likely implications of these new GMOs for developing countries.

The conference is open to everyone, is free and will be moderated.

To subscribe to the conference, send an e-mail to listserv@listserv.fao.org with the following one line in the body of the message (leave the subject line blank):

subscribe biotech-room2-L firstname lastname

Where firstname and lastname refer to the person’s first and last name.

For example, if the subscriber’s name is John Smith, then the line should be:

subscribe biotech-room2-L John Smith

The background document to the conference is available from the Forum website, at http://www.fao.org/biotech/biotech-forum/en/.

For more information, contact biotech-mod2@fao.org.

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”.

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.

Biotechnology, biopiracy and intellectual property: an analysis

It’s a bit of a lengthy read, but here’s an interesting analysis by Oduor Ong’wen on biotechnology, biopiracy and intellectual property rights and their impact on livelihoods.

Oduor Ong’wen is the Kenya country director for the Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI).

Source: Pambazuka