Kenya has become the fifth country in Africa to allow the cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), causing alarm among farmers and activists. The question is, will the decision last?
GM products sceptics and activists continue to raise concerns as companies that produce the GMOs like Monsanto, remain defendants that their products are safe for human consumption.
The mention of Monsanto has become synonymous with GMOs. The US-based seed company has been defending GMOs’ safety, health and nutrition facts against mounting criticism from all sectors.
Concerns against GMOs include claims of low nutrient content, failure of seeds to germinate, affecting organic plants through pollen crossover, allergies, cancer and overall destruction of ecosystems.
While some are against GMOs from Monsanto and other similar companies, countries like Tanzania welcome the use of GMOs. Monsanto products are legal in Tanzania, and authorities there argue that the technology is important and necessary to increase agriculture productivity, create resistant varieties capable of staving off disease and drought, and even increase nutritious benefits.
Monsanto makes Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), both plant and animal, through genetic engineering aka genetic modification (GM) aka modern biotechnology. Through genetic engineering, scientists can ‘create plants, animals and microorganisms by manipulating genes.
GMOs are created through genetic engineering, a process described as ‘the improvement of the biotechnological process. Genetic engineering is used to improve plant and animal qualities by making them more resistant and more productive.
So, if GMOs and the genetic engineering process is safe and productive, what is all the fuss about?
In Tanzania, however, there is little to no fuss over GMOs or genetic engineering. In fact, the process and the resulting products are protected by law.
Tanzania has legalised the use and consumption of GMOs and genetic engineering research as well. The country passed the National Environment Act No. 20 of 2004, modern biotechnological regulations of 2009 and its amendments of 2015, all of which defend the use and consumption of GMOs and genetic engineering research.
The East African nation is also a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety Convention.
Through its own research conducted by the Department of Economics at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is confident that the application of GMOs is beneficial.
Also Read: Africa’s distaste for hybrids
Nigerian activists want the government to reject GMOs
While Tanzania has approved genetic engineering research and has no issue with the safety of GMOs, across the continent in Nigeria, the story is different. The leading economy in Africa is against genetic engineering and/or the consumption of GMOs.
Stakeholders are calling on the government to revisit its biosafety laws to protect its people from what they describe as the uncertain safety of GM products.
Local media in Nigeria report worrisome findings of a survey by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), which was conducted across nine major cities in the West African country that revealed over 30 food products found in the Nigerian market are GM products.
The products range from vegetable oils and cereals to ice cream and spices. Ok, so there are various GMOs on supermarket shelves in Nigeria. Is it a crime? No, in fact it is perfectly legal to import, sell and consume GM products in Nigeria.
In Nigeria, the National Biosafety Management Agency is in charge of ensuring the safety of GMOs, and the agency has approved a score of genetically modified products.
However, critics argue that while these products are cheap, the safety of GMOs is questionable. Media reports claim that GMOs are laden with heavy doses of toxic chemicals and which are linked to severe health conditions.
In his words, the HOMEF Programme Manager Joyce Brown argues that “…genetic manipulation of crops poses grave concern for food systems, human and environmental health.”
As an example, she cited the presence of glyphosate, a major component of herbicides, raising doubt about the safety of genetically engineered products as a biosafety hazard.
“Several countries have taken a stand against genetically modified food products because they have found that these products do not give the benefits or show characteristics that they are claimed to possess,” she warned.
According to the HOMEF Programme Manager, following review of the risk assessment report prepared after the approved genetically modified products were examined before importation revealed that there was no examination conducted as to the safety of the products when consumed by humans.
“Some products, the assessment was on environmental implication like how crops interact with other crops, but there was no research done in terms of how GMOs affect human health in the long run,” Brown claimed.
Worse still, it is alleged that while GM products are supposed to be clearly labelled, they are not or at least the manner of labelling does not meet the purpose.
” We have foods being sold in basins and baskets in the common market where the majority of Nigerians buy their products. How can someone detect beans that are GMOs?” argues Nnimmo Bassey, an environmental justice and food sovereignty activist.
Kenyan activists rise against GM products
Similar to the situation in Nigeria, Kenyan activists in food security, consumer rights and biodiversity are protesting the reversal of a ban on genetically modified products. The activists argue that the decision was unilateral and that there was no consultation with the public.
The development comes as Kenya’s President William Ruto recently reversed a long-standing ban on GM products in Kenya. The unfolding story says that Kenya’s Cabinet lifted the ‘ban on openly cultivating and importing genetically modified crops in Kenya despite biosafety concerns
It is claimed that Kenya’s Cabinet reached that decision after being pressured by the US on the grounds that the ban affects U.S. agricultural exports to Kenya.
Several activist groups in Kenya have released a joint statement saying lift of the ban “essentially curtails the freedom of Kenyans to choose what they want to eat.” The activists are asking for the ban to be reinstated, for the decision to lift it to be inclusive, and for biosafety to be improved.
“GMOs will put at risk our indigenous seed and plant varieties…the National Biosafety Authority that’s meant to regulate GM products lacks the capacity to take on this expansion,” the joint statement reads in part.
Much remains to be decided when it comes to GM products. While activists argue that the safety of genetically engineered products is questionable and biosafety needs to be improved, scientists seem divided on the matter and politicians are all but willing to bend to the will of big companies.
With food security a matter of grave concern, we can expect that GM products from Monsanto and others will continue to influx Africa for the next foreseeable future.