Kenya recently lifted a 10-year-old ban on the cultivation and importation of genetically modified food. We caught up with Patricia Nanteza, of Science Stories Africa, to hear more about the news and her vision to give Africa a voice.
By Marco Visscher
After Western activists claimed genetically modified maize caused cancerous tumours in rats, Kenya's government imposed a ban on GM food. (Photo: Curt Carnemark/World Bank)
What happened in Kenya?
‘This month, the newly elected president William Ruto and his government decided to approve GMOs. They justified GMOs as a necessity in the wake of climate change that has negatively impacted weather patterns and affected food production. In an official statement, Ruto said the policy shift on GMOs will unlock a supply line of relief food, easing hunger for millions of people in the country and the Horn of Africa.’
How dire is the situation in Kenya at the moment?
‘Over 4 million people in Kenya are currently facing high levels of acute food insecurity due to a prolonged drought following the failure of rains for four consecutive seasons. The statement said the decision was “a progressive step towards significantly redefining agriculture in Kenya by adopting crops that are resistant to pests and disease.”’
This sounds like a historic shift.
‘It is. Finally, scientific evidence wins in a policy debate in an African country. Although this decision now has to go before Parliament in order to become law, this is a welcome first step.’
Incidentally, the decision came one day after your talk at the RePlanet Sessions 2022. In your talk, you argued for letting Africa choose whether or not to use modern biotechnology in agriculture, such as GMOs. In what way do Westerners try to take away Africa’s right to choose?
‘It is done in many ways. Subtle ways include international policies. European influence on Africa’s rejection of GMOs can be first traced to the formulation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), drafted and signed in 2000. Here, Europe influenced its sponsored delegates from Africa and elsewhere to adopt terminologies that cause fear of GM technology, such as references to “Living Modified Organisms”. They also came with a strict liability clause which makes scientists accountable in case of any complaint associated to their research regardless of whether the particular anomaly was directly caused by the scientist. The protocol requires mandatory fencing-off of GM crop trial sites, and 24-hour armed security surveillance. This raises suspicion in the public’s minds. If the technology is not dangerous and harmful, they ask, why confine and guard it?’
Some African governments have based their rejection of GM food on scientific reports.
‘Some information serves the sole purpose of fear-mongering. French-born Gilles-Éric Séralini’s 2012 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology is popularly referenced by anti-GMO activists, even though it has been retracted because the study’s design was flawed and the findings were not supported by data. Activists still claim that Séralini exposes how Bt maize caused cancerous tumours in rats. The study had major international repercussions, shaping media and public opinion. It informed the banning of genetically modified foods by the Kenyan government at the end of 2012.
Also, a 2013 paper by Canadian-born Matthew Schnurr on biotechnology in Uganda was used by activists to show that European scientists had somehow demonstrated that GM foods are carcinogenic, hence the need to reject them in Africa. It was written to suggest that the Ugandan government was in bed with researchers, legislators and communicators to push through pro-GMO legislation. The “exposé” and funding emboldened local activists’ case against the passing of the bill. Up to today, Uganda has not passed this bill that would legalise the cultivation and consumption of GMOs.’
Has Western influence on rejecting GM food led to hunger and famine?
‘In 2003, Zambia and Zimbabwe faced a dilemma. These countries had to choose between eating GM maize or dying from famine. That was the predicament facing the region’s cash-strapped governments when the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) provided them with thousands of tonnes of emergency food aid to help combat severe famine conditions. Some of the food came from donor countries, such as the US, which produce large quantities of genetically modified maize and other grains. Citing health and environmental concerns, Zimbabwe blocked the GM food aid from entering the country. In Zambia, where some GM grain had already arrived, the government placed it under lock and key, banned its distribution and then blocked another 40,000 tonnes that were in the pipeline.’
How do countries in Africa respond to attempts from the West to influence political decisions on GMOs?
‘Uganda has refused to pass the National Biotechnology Bill. Kenya banned the import of GM foods, processed or not. However, Kenya’s ban excludes research and commercialisation, and the country has since commercialised GM cotton. Tanzania instituted the strict liability clause. When Nigeria strengthened its National Biosafety Agency and gave it authority to commercialise GM crops, the Agency was sued by activists but courts ruled in its favour. Nigeria now has two GM crops (Bt cowpea and Bt cotton).’
How do you think GMOs can benefit African farmers and consumers?
‘First, there’s nutrition security. Vitamin-A enhanced bananas will boost the nutrition and immunity of children under five and women of child-bearing age. Then there’s food security. Crops like bananas in Uganda are affected by BXW, a bacterial disease, but they can be protected from losses through GM BXW-resistant varieties. The same is true for Bt maize and Bt cowpea, which are food security crops throughout Africa.
This brings us to income security. Cash crops like Bt cotton can boost the income of farmers. When Burkina Faso was still cultivating Bt cotton, it was Africa’s leading exporter of cotton.
Furthermore, allowing GMOs can reduce drudgery. Herbicide tolerance is a miracle innovation that will change the trajectory of farming in Africa. Because African farms are generally small, somewhere between two and five acres, their size does not support the use of huge machinery such as tractors. We still use hand-held hoes. Most weeding is back-breaking work done by women. Herbicide tolerance will be a godsend to poor African farmers who prepare their land, plants and weeds manually.
Finally, it will increase both farmer health and environmental protection. GM crops that confer the ability to fight pests and diseases reduce pesticide usage. This will save farmers from overexposure to pesticides, as they rarely wear protective gear when spraying. It will also prevent indiscriminate spraying and the killing of insects, including the beneficial ones.’
What downsides can we expect from using GMOs in Africa, and how can these negatives be avoided?
‘I cannot think of any downside. Most of all, I think Africa should speak for itself on deciding whether or not to allow GMOs.’
What should be done to ensure African voices are heard in decision-making on GMOs?
‘Ensure that African delegations are invited to international policy-making assemblies. It is not uncommon for a Westerner who terms him or herself an “expert on African affairs” to represent our interests at such big international conventions. Please invite us to these conferences, financially support our attendance whenever possible and reduce visa restrictions, because they often act as a barrier to entry.’
What can Westerners themselves do to avoid Western interference into Africa’s decision-making on modern biotechnology?
‘Give carefully to NGOs. Check the scope of work and mandate of the charities you donate to. Withdraw your support if they dictate to organisations in Africa and the Global South. Also, put out more positive content so that the conversation around modern biotechnology is more balanced and depolarised.’
Patricia Nanteza is founder and director of Science Stories Africa. Prior, she was Associate Director for Africa at the Alliance for Science. On October 2, Patricia was one of the speakers at The RePlanet Sessions 2022: A New Hope, a conference organised in Warsaw, Poland. You can watch her talk here on our YouTube channel.