NAIROBI - The grand scheme to introduce genetically modified foods into Kenya seemed to shift into top gear after the Ministry of Agriculture launched a campaign last month to make the country appreciate them.
First, Minister for Agriculture, William Ruto, who has on several occasions publicly expressed his support for the introduction of GM foods into the country, launched the National Biotechnology Awareness Strategy last month.
According to a statement Ruto sent to the press, the strategy was aimed at offering Kenyans "accurate and reliable information and knowledge" about such branches of biotechnology as tissue culture, molecular breeding and genetic modification.
"This will enable Kenyans to make informed decisions and be involved in determining the pace of adoption of biotechnology in the country," he said.
However, Ruto went ahead to state that Kenya will embrace GMOs, making it appear the government had launched the awareness campaign merely to state its pro-GMO stance.
This has led to fresh fears that the government has irrevocably decided on introduction, cultivation and commercialisation of GMOs in the country.
Ruto had earlier, on August 14, said he has never come across any proof that GMOs are risky to human health and stated that it was the height of irony for people to continue opposing GMO proliferation when the country has been importing food from countries that grow genetically modified foods.
Indeed, the Assistant Minister for Basic Education, Prof Ayiecho Olweny, confessed last month that the government has been importing GM-foods. He was addressing a luncheon organised in Nairobi by key pro-GM lobbyists under the auspices of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa.
"All this noise about GMOs... is politics (and) politics is more dangerous than science... We are eating some of them already," he said.
Prof Olweny also revealed that he and fellow legislators had worked hard to defeat a Bill brought to parliament last year by a former Saboti MP, Davis Nakitare, which had asked the government to ban GMOs in Kenya.
The Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology has also been preparing to take back to parliament a Bill that was heavily criticised last year for failing to address the concerns of farmers and consumers and for merely seeking to create the necessary legal framework for the introduction of GMOs in Kenya.
The EastAfrican has learnt from sources at parliament that the revised Bill was recently presented before two House committees -- Agriculture, Land and Natural Resources as well as the one on Education, Science and Technology.
"The new Bill is termed the Biosafety Bill 2008. But much of its contents closely resemble those in the Biosafety Bill 2007," said Wanjiru Kamau, the spokesperson of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC). She said that apart from a few clauses that have been changed following an outcry by KBioC, the rest of the contents "are intact."
Other critics had charged that the very process of preparing the Bill was shrouded in secrecy, with a leading environmental lawyer Maurice Makoloo telling The East-African last year; "There has been so much secrecy that most stakeholders do not even know where they can get a copy of the Bill."
Interestingly, by mid this year, the farmers' and consumers' lobby, aided by animal welfare organisations and groups that champion organic farming had drafted their version of the bill and presented it to parliament as a private member's Bill. This is the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2008, introduced into parliament by the only Mazingira-Green Party MP, Silas Muriuki, who is also a farmer in Meru.
According to the Hansard record, Mr Muriuki had filed the notice in parliament on June 26. But a day later, the government -- through Dr Sally Kosgey, the Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology -- published Biosafety Bill 2008 under Kenya Gazette Supplement No. 48 (Bills No. 15).
There are now suspicions that the government is determined to push through an unpopular Bill and that the ministers' demonstrated support for introduction of GMOs is a prelude to full introduction of the technology.
"They want to do it by force, the so-called national awareness strategy is a mere gimmick," said Josphat Ngonyo of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare. Mr Ngonyo said KBioC, of which he is a member, has attempted to get the agriculture minister to listen to its side of the GMO story to no avail. KBioC is anumbrella body representing over 50 farmers' groups, religious organisations, consumer organisations and NGOs.
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Other developments also seem to point to the fact that the country could be gearing up for the full introduction of these foods. For instance, during a field day staged by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) at its Kiboko field station on September 5, it emerged that the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa Project (IRMA), KARI and the International Maize and Wheat Centre (CIMMYT) are preparing to release genetically modified maize to Kenyan farmers between 2010 and 2011.
According to posters displayed during the field day, the genetically modified maize being tested will be "pre-released" to farmers in 2010 and will later be released "on a large-scale" in 2011.
This writer saw rows of maize plants in the KARI farm that were clearly labelled GMO and received confirmation from the head of KARI's Biotechnology Centre, Dr Simon Gichuki, that besides Kiboko, KARI is testing GM crops in Alupe, Busia, Kabete and Mwea.
Located in Kibwezi district some four-hours drive along Nairobi-Mombasa highway, Kiboko is part of KARI's overall network of 22 research stations.
According to the posters displayed by KARI, much of the core funding for the IRMA project comes from Syngenta Foundation, Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. The project focuses on the development of maize varieties that are alleged to have an in-built ability to protect themselves from pests without any chemical being sprayed.
This is the bt-maize, which the project terms "a type of genetically modified maize that uses a gene from common soil bacterium (Bacillus thurigiensis), that produces insecticidal proteins that protects the plant against stem borers.
"Here is evidence that all the activities and the announcements by top government officials, some scientists and pro-GMO lobby are to prepare the country for this eventuality in 2010," said Mr Ngonyo.
But one of the leading proponents of genetic engineering in Kenya, Dr Florence Wambugu, told The EastAfrican that those opposed to the introduction and proliferation of GMOs in Africa are profiteers and fearmongers.
"There are those who get business from fearmongering," she said. She also accused Greenpeace International of offering false information by claiming that some of the maize seeds grown in Kenya are contaminated by GM-materials.
This drew the ire of a Greenpeace official who accused Dr Wambugu of employing "scare tactics" in campaigning for GMOs in Africa.
"The genetic engineering industry, and their spokesperson for Africa, Florence Wambugu, must be really desperate if they are now resorting to lies, and ridiculous ones... Greenpeace never ever endangered the environment, the life of farmers and the health of consumers by putting a single genetically engineered seed into any soil anywhere in the world, and whoever suggests the opposite is completely out of touch with reality," said Jan Van Aken of Greenpeace's Sustainable Agriculture.
What is interesting is that even though she denied that Monsanto ever funded her in her pro-GMO campaign, Dr Wambugu nevertheless admitted that she gets money from such bodies as the United States Development Agency (USAid), Rockefeller Foundation, Dupont and CropLife International.
The latter is an organisation represented in 91 countries whose members include the global who's-who of the genetic engineering industry -- BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow Agrosciences, Dupont, FMC, Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta. Dr Wambugu is the founder of Africa Harvest, which campaigns for GMOs in Africa.
With all this going on, it seems it is only a matter of time before Kenya joins South Africa in growing and commercialising GMOs. The trouble is that Kenya's horticultural exports to the European Union (EU), particularly baby corn, stand to be affected. Kenya and Zambia are the main exporters of fresh baby corn to the EU, with much of the product being consumed in Britain.
Some of the baby corn sold in British supermarkets is grown by small-scale farmers in Kibwezi under irrigation.
What is most interesting is that the Kenya government recognises the significant role played by the country's horticultural exports.
For instance, a month after coming out in the open to support the proliferation of GMOs, Ruto himself promised flower growers that the country will start branding its horticulture, tea and coffee exports to the EU.