Kenya: African Scientists, Media, Policymakers Debate Over GMOs

The media in Africa was penultimate week awash with views, commentary and news expressing all shades of opinions on why the continent and countries such as Kenya should either go ahead or drop its ambition of popularising genetically modified organisms otherwise referred to as GMOs.

The debate was as a result of a law in Kenya allowing for the production and importation of GMOs and ending restrictions on GM maize and other various products in the country.

The development may sound new and therefore has the potentials of triggering comments and debate in the media but the law made Kenya the fourth country in Africa to open up to GMOs after South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso.

Biotechnology which is a scientific tool or methodology of using biological resources to make/improve products and services, has been used by man especially the old civilizations over the centuries.

The law in Kenya according to Prof. James Opiyo Ochanda, Director Centre for Biotechnology and Bio-informatics at the University of Nairobi would be beneficial to Kenya’s quest for food security.

“Genetically engineered crops are resistant to pests and diseases that often require expensive and harmful chemicals to eradicate, instead of applying chemicals, scientists have engineered the plants to introduce genes or molecules that allow the crop to protect itself,” Ochanda said.

Prof. Samuel Gudu, a plant breeding specialist and Vice Chancellor of the Moi University in Kenya, also supported Ochanda’s position and added that with genetic modification Kenya could improve the quality and quantity of key crops such as maize.

“GMOs are meant to increase the quality of maize and other crops. They can protect the crops against insects and what Kenyans should be asking for are the details of the consignment to be brought in as opposed to fear-mongering,” he said.

One crucial element not to lose sight of as we analyse the situation and its implication on the continent is that currently in Kenya over 385,000 children are malnourished and together with 90,000 starving pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, are caught up in a famine catastrophe.

In Nigeria, efforts to get a legalisation similar to what obtains in Kenya have been fraught with difficulties since the last decade. But there seems to be some ray of hope following the passage of the biosafety bill by the National Assembly before the end of the 6th legislative session in May 2011.

But whether the president will ascent to it is another matter entirely.

The experts, who gathered in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, warned that Nigeria, with a burgeoning population, will have to revamp its food sector to meet the task of providing enough food for its increasing population.

To them, modern biotechnology has the potential to address these concerns and guarantee food security in the country, especially as there is recognisable need to improve the productive capacity of rural farmers through the deployment of appropriate technologies that is believed to hold the key to agricultural revolution in developing nations.

Bamidele Solomon, director general, National Biotechnology Development Agency, said recently: “It has been established that a transformed agricultural production is sine qua non for a resilient economy in any country. This is particularly true of Nigeria like most developing countries. We have a responsibility to show the light and point to the right way to go if Nigeria is to keep up with the tempo of development around the world.

“We can no longer allow the resource poor farmers to remain at subsistence level. Rather, we need to assist them to access appropriate technology that will help them get good returns for their labour. Modern biotechnology has a lot to offer in our bid to becoming self-reliant in our food production,” Solomon added.

However, in Nigeria not all accept bio-engineered foodstuff. Lots of groups and individuals are against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially as it concerns the health implication of consuming GMO foods.

In Ghana, efforts are on to fast track the passage of the biosafety law but for the last two years, the bill had been with the Parliament science and technology committee. This development according to experts had drastically reduced the momentum with which the public wanted the bill passed.

In Zimbabwe government is still undecided on what step to take but the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU) has called on the government to allow farmers to plant Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) maize seed so as to increase harvest and counter imports.

Obidimma Ezezika, Project Manager of the ethical, social, cultural and commercialization program for Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) said the positive impact of genetically modified crops found in other countries may not fully materialise in sub Saharan Africa due to the absence appropriate policy, regulatory and socio-economic conditions.

So far the media have remained passive in the debate allowing unscientific views to dominate the discuss and this has led to unnecessary heating up of the polity.

A story in one of Kenyan dailies with a screaming headline and quoting copiously from Wikipedia on why people should detest GMOs was not only misleading but displayed the passiveness of the writer on the issue.

A recent interaction on the good or otherwise of biotechnology on EJNET, a journalistic platform created and moderated by Internews for journalists across the globe to share ideas and compare notes revealed that the era of journalists accepting views hook line and sinker was over.

Consensus on the network was that journalists should not accept any view without asking questions or seeking further clarification from experts especially in the scientific community.

Patrick Lugunda, a veteran journalist from Uganda in his contribution to the discussion noted that as “journalists we have a duty to our readers/audiences and the best thing is to promote an enabling informed environment where biotechnology can co-exist with traditional cropping in the same farming systems.”

The problem with covering biotechnology especially by journalists in the developing world is that we depend too much on what the western media circulates. Several positions that are often reported have pro and anti biotechnology lobbyists behind them, Patrick noted.

One of the greatest challenges that many of the journalists’ purporting to communicate biotechnology issues have is that they just echo one or the other side of the biotechnology divide, squarely falling into the traps of the lobbyists.

A way forward could be to pursue evidence based reporting and understanding that most scientific matters have two sides of the story. Climate Change reporting also faced similar challenges until scientific evidence were able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the phenomenon do exist.

Peter Wamboga-Mugirya, editor of the Science Times magazine throwing light on GM said thus: “what is misunderstood about modifying crops e.g. in the case of herbicide-tolerant soya, alfalfa and cotton; or Bt cotton and Bt maize; and GM is that this is done to confer resistance to pests, diseases and tolerance towards the Round-Up chemical whose active ingredient is glyphosate, sprayed to kill weeds among herbicide-tolerant crops.

“But, conventionally-bred crops have over so many years, proved to have limitations in abilities/capabilities to resist their challengers (pests, diseases, drought, weeds e.t.c) hence the use of biotechnology for specific introduction of genes to offer them new and greater ability and capacity to fight off the above enemies,” Wamboga-Mugirya said.

But in a nutshell, Africa is genetically modifying its staple crops, which are under siege by a diversity of pests and diseases and other abiotic stresses, yet the local populations survive on these staples as sources of daily food–maize (corn), potatoes, bananas and cassava (now suffering from cassava mosaic and cassava Brown Streak diseases), noted Wamboga-Mugirya.

For Cosmas Butunyi, a Kenyan based science journalist it is regrettable that as the world celebrates 15 years of commercial production of biotech crops, most African countries to whom such technology could be a saving grace are still dragging their feet.

Source:- All Africa.Com – Alex Abutu – 22 November 2011

1 COMMENT

  1. Thia is a great article that has shown the other side of the debate. I think the media has not been objective in its reporting and GMOs are only reported on the negative.
    Thanks for good work Africa Brains

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