Reintroduction of GMO crops in Kenya- What you need to know in layman’s language

President Ruto lifts ban on GMO crops & foods

News have broken a few days ago that Kenya has lifted all bans against the growing and importation of GMO crops and foods. From media houses to social media and face-to-face conversations, people have been trying to give and seek clarification on what exactly it means to Kenyans that the ban has been lifted. Honestly speaking, from my assessment, the topic of GMO crops and foods is one of the least understood topics in our country. That's why I needed to write this article to shed more light regarding this topic.

The fight against GMO crops is a fight against the fear of the unknown

Just to digress a little bit, Kenya’s most powerful court of justice, the Supreme Court of Kenya has taught us a very critical aspect that facts and evidence matter a lot. Allegations and non-founded accusations do not hold any water when making decisions.

During my time as a student at Strathmore Business School studying a professional course in agribusiness management, students were tasked to conduct research and present findings on why African nations are hesitant to accept GMOs. The conclusion from all the presentations was: the fear of the unknown. In fact, someone gave an analogy, “If you have a choir with 100 members who don’t know each other or who never practiced together, and you ask them to sing, the result can only be a disorder and voice discordances”. This is the same reason why people fear GMO foods.

In layman’s language, a GMO crop, for instance, maize, is a crop variety that has not been arrived at through natural breeding, but rather through the transfer of genes in a laboratory. When we talk of crop variety, it means seeds that can produce a crop that bears certain characteristics. Taking the example of maize again, we have short-season varieties that mature within 4 months, we also have highly productive varieties that produce up to six combs of maize, other varieties grow better in some regions than others, etc. It is hard to find all these characteristics in one maize plant.

The process of developing crop varieties that bear the desired characteristics through natural breeding is very tedious, time-consuming, and less accurate. It can take up to 20 years to come up with a variety. That’s why seeds are very expensive. For example, you have to cross-breed maize carrying drought resistance genes with another that has pest resistance genes. The resulting generation is crossbred with another that is more productive. The next generation is crossbred with another that is more drought resistant, and so on. You can imagine how much time is required to achieve the results. The results are not always achieved as desired because as you can imagine, no human being looks exactly like their parents.

On the other hand, genetic modification of crops simply means that you extract genes in charge of the superior characteristics and inject them into a crop that has other desired characteristics. This is done in-vitro (in the lab). With gene transfer, a lot of good characteristics can be combined into one plant within a very short time. Results obtained are much more certain than with natural breeding.

Why resistance towards GMO foods in Africa?

Most people believe that when unfamiliar genes are combined in one plant, it's like a choir with 100 members who have never trained together. Nobody would want to invite such a choir to perform on an occasion.

Resistance against GMO crops is on one side due to the fear of the unknown, and secondly due to misinformation. When people discuss GMOs, they often drag agrochemicals like pesticides into the debate. As a matter of fact, chemicals sprayed on the crops have nothing to do with the genetic composition of the crop. The quality of agrochemicals and their professional and ethical use is a different topic altogether. Even without GMO crops, misuse of agrochemicals can cause serious health issues to consumers.

To date, there is no single research that has found GMO crops to be responsible for a particular health condition in human beings. Countries that are known to be very prudent, more diligent, more developed, and with patriotic citizens like the US, Europe, and  South Africa have adopted GMOs. I believe they are not foolish, nor do they wish the worst for their people. This is a good signal for African countries to reassess their position regarding GMO foods.

Joseph Wambugu

Joseph is a consultant in agribusiness and a mechanization specialist