Kenya’s animal feed crisis tests 2012 GMO import ban
MondayFebruary 07 2022
By ALLAN LIAVOGA
- Livestock farmers are having to cut down on the rations of feed or the herd numbers, resulting in slow growth rates or losses for farmers and livelihoods of people who depend on this industry.
- This high cost of production is reflected in the high prices of some basic foods, significantly contributing to the rising inflation and cost of living.
In the recent past, there has been an outcry from the animal feed industry over the skyrocketing cost of raw material, resulting in feed manufacturers either scaling down or closing shop.
Livestock farmers are having to cut down on the rations of feed or the herd numbers, resulting in slow growth rates or losses for farmers and livelihoods of people who depend on this industry. This high cost of production is reflected in the high prices of some basic foods, significantly contributing to the rising inflation and cost of living.
The animal feed industry through the Association of Kenya Feed Manufactures has been pleading with the government to allow them to import cheaper genetically modified (GM) yellow maize and soy in a bid to drive down these prices. The government only allows for importation of maize that is 100 percent GM-free.
This restricted import is proving to be a big challenge for those sourcing for this raw material. Paradoxically, even the European Union, that operates strict GM regulations, allows for 99.1 percent purity on GM products.
The feed milling industry is arguing that the government should align with this standard that will make it easier for them to source for the maize.
In my opinion, the discussion currently should not be about whether to allow for the importation of GM yellow maize or not, but whether GM food products currently in the international market are safe for consumption by humans and animals.
This is the proverbial elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. As a country, we must discuss openly and objectively whether GM technology may be useful for us and address any perceived fears if that is the way we want to go.
The topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) elicits a lot of emotions but it ought not to if we look at it soberly. Covid-19 has taught the world that we must fight science with science, our personal beliefs and biases notwithstanding.
The world trusted and applied science to develop Covid-19 vaccines in record time, thus saving millions of lives. Virtually all Covid-19 vaccines are GM products.
Some of these advances in biotechnology have also been used in agriculture to increase the production and nutrition of food.
The debate on GMOs and their safety to the environment and health has been with us since the advent of GMOs in the 1990s. Fortunately, presently we have a body of knowledge and data that can help us make informed decisions on their safety.
So what exactly do we know about GM crops and their safety to health of humans and animals? In a very simplified way, I will use the example of GM maize to discuss health safety.
The science applied in developing GM crops is referred to as genetic engineering or simply modern biotechnology. Scientists discovered ways of transferring genes (also called an event) from one organism to another to introduce a useful trait(s).
A trait is a distinguishing characteristic that is notable. For example, some of the GM maize varieties have a trait that allows them to inherently resist damage by some pests that infest it in the field.
Maize that has been modified in this way is referred to as Bt maize, named after the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiesis (Bt) where the gene responsible for the trait originates from.
Kenya already approved and commercialized Bt cotton in 2019 and 2020 respectively and cotton farmers are already planting it.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.
The WHO goes ahead to point out that no effects on human health have been shown as a result of consumption of such foods in countries where they have been approved.
Bt maize was first commercialized in 1996 in the USA and has been approved in 26 other countries plus the European Union, for either direct consumption or processing as food or feed, or cultivation.
In Africa, approval for Bt maize has been given in Egypt, Nigeria, Zambia and South Africa. But maize has also been evaluated as being safe for human or animal consumption by the European Food Safety Authority since 2008, and subsequently the long-term safety of GM plants affirmed by a range of governments, and academic and industrial scientists.
So if the safety of Bt maize for human and animal consumption is not in question, why is the Kenyan government not allowing the feed millers to import GM maize or soy or any other GM crop that has been certified to be safe internationally but also by our very own National Biosafety Authority (NBA)?
It’s probably because there is the ban on importation of GMOs that has been in place since August of 2012 through a Cabinet and presidential decree. Since then any approval by the NBA for release to the environment, commercialization or importation would require Cabinet endorsement.
Incidentally the NBA has already conducted the risk assessment of Bt maize after an application for environmental release, cultivation and placing on the market submitted by our scientists at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in conjunction with African Agricultural Technology Foundation.
Kenya is one of the few African countries with a fully functional biosafety system spearhead by a competent NBA whose mandate is to transfer overseas, handling and use of GMOs with a view to ensuring safety of human and animal health and provision of an adequate level of protection of the environment.
The NBA has been conducting its regulatory mandates in concert with supporting government agencies since 2012 and has the capacity to evaluate cutting-edge biotechnology like gene editing. If this is the case, why are we as a country hesitating to fully embrace science and technology to solve some of our societal problems?
My guess is that there is still a negative perception on the safety of GMOs despite having a functional system in place that should be guiding the country on risk assessment and management. In countries where GMOs are grown or consumed the common denominator is that the public has full trust in government and the relevant institutions to regulate the technology and assure safety.
A negative perception of any activity typically emanates from a lack of adequate information or misinformation among other reasons. A good example is the current resistance to Covid-19 vaccination by some communities world over.
Is it possible that our policy and decision-makers either do not have adequate or have misleading information on the safety of GMOs for human or animal consumption to allow them to confidently make informed decisions?
Whatever decision we take as a country must be grounded on sound science. We cannot continue doing things the same way over and over and expect a different outcome.
Revisiting the animal feed problem, it would appear that the government would need to empower the NBA and supporting agencies and allow them to advise us on the direction to take that is backed by scientific data and objective evaluation.
In a country where poverty levels have been increasing steadily over the past decade and the rate of unemployment is very high, especially among the youth, we cannot afford to be closing small businesses when enabling policy is all it would take to make them thrive.
Dr Liavoga is a researcher and food safety expert. [email protected]