Kenya’s Treacherous Tango with GM Crops

In 2010 a group of activists saved Kenyan farmers from the clutches of Monsanto (now Bayer). Can they do it again?

In 2010 commodity trading giant Louis Dreyfus shipped 40,000 tons of maize seed to Kenya on behalf of the South African government. There was just one problem: ordinary Kenyans had no idea the seed was genetically modified — a despite the right to this knowledge being enshrined in the country’s National Biosafety Act.

It was only when South Africa made good on it’s obligations under the international Cartagena protocol to publicly declare all cross-border movements of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), that the Kenyan government became aware of the shipment. By this time the cargo had already landed in the port of Mombasa.

As news of the shipment spread, hundreds of people — farmers, consumers, traders, and environmentalists took to the streets of Nairobi. Organising themselves under a movement led by the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, citizens and pressure groups marched to Parliament, demanding that then President Kibaki intervene to prevent the cargo being released.

Incredibly, they succeeded.

Not only did their protest get the shipment blocked, it paved the way for an outright ban on GMOs that came into force by Presidential decree in 2012.

The ban was triggered by a high-profile, albeit controversial study linking consumption of Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant maize to cancerous tumours in lab rats; but would have been unlikely without the support of an established and diverse anti-GMO coalition.

This ban is still in place and overrides the legal framework established by the 2009 National Biosafety Act. Despite this, Monsanto Bayer has been pushing for approval to “bring to the market” a host of GM crops since 2015. Permission for trials of Bt Cotton and Bt Maize was granted in 2016 on the condition that an environmental impact assessment be carried out, the results publicly shared, and any concerns adequately addressed. These conditions have not been met. The government has also refused to release a public enquiry into Kenya’s GM readiness that was undertaken by a nationally representative taskforce in 2014.

Open field trials began in 2017 and national performance trials are underway in various parts of the country. Public agencies have begun sensitising farmers on the adoption of GM seed. It now seems highly likely that despite the 2012 ban still being in place, and procedures under the NBA Act being circumvented, that commercialisation of GM crops will begin in 2019.

Food sovereignty — the right to determine one’s own food systems and food choices is a right upheld by Article 43 of the Kenyan consitution. The government’s lack of policy coherence on genetic modification calls this commitment into question.

Recognising what is at stake, local advocacy groups have once again come together to push for an open and balanced dialogue. They are calling for a multi-sectoral, and multi-stakeholder process. But time is running out. Just like 9 years ago, they may do better by taking to the streets.

Lifelong learner striving to make development aid work better. Here because “If you don’t take risks for your opinion, you are nothing” ~Nassim Taleb

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