By George Achia

During the national dialogue on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) held at the University of Nairobi on Wednesday this week, the Principal Secretary for agricultural research, Prof. Hamadi Boga told the participants that Kenya currently produces two metric tonnes per hectare of maize, against the global standards of 12, leaving a deficit that can only be bridged through importation of maize.

In the face of a perennial drought in most parts of arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya, Prof. Boga called for the need to innovate and embrace technologies to boost the country’s productivity levels so that communities in drought stricken areas don’t have to overly depend on relief food.

This is was an apparent reference to the use of climate-smart technologies like agricultural biotechnology that have been proven to improve productivity in arid areas.

However, the deployment of biotechnology was halted when the government through an executive order in 2013, banned the importation of GMOs into the country, dealing a significant blow to progress on biotechnology research and development in the country.

Nonetheless, in a move to give an array of hope for those keen on biotech research and development in the country, he suggested, without giving much information, that the government will make a decision on the ban in a month’s time. This revelation comes after President Uhuru Kenyatta called for a quick deployment of Bt. Cotton to help revive the collapsed textile industry during his state of the nation address early this month.

Bt. Cotton has been undergoing the national performance trial in different sites in the country and now “at the verge of commercialisation”.  The performance trial was done after an environmental release approval by the National Bio-safety Authority (NBA) in 2016, based on Environmental Impact Assessment clearance certificate and licence for open field trials issued in 2018.

If the ban is lifted, this will be a remarkable boost in delivering the government’s two Big Four Agenda goals on food security and manufacturing— thus, requiring Kenyatta’s government to embrace agricultural biotechnology.

Consequently, this move will reverse the many years of resistance and delay that have caused Kenya to lag behind other African countries such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Malawi and Nigeria which have allowed the growing of Bt. Cotton, and deployment and use of Bt. technology. Accordingly, this will put to a stop the debate among the proponents and opponents of biotechnology.

Moving away from debates to dialogues, the national dialogue on GMOs provides a platform for the public to engage in a sober manner, away from the tantrums we seen before where both parties employ mechanisms to shot down the other through peddling ‘truth and half truths’ about the technology.

One of the issues that have marked the debate on agricultural biotechnology is whether Kenya has adequate human, regulatory and scientific capacity needed to handle and deploy GMOs.

However, Dr. Richard Oduor, the chair of Kenya Biotechnology Consortium (KUBICO) and one of the panellists during the dialogue, was quick to point out that “Kenya has the infrastructure and human capacity needed for research and regulation of biotech crops including over 100 scientists engaged in research and development activities across the country, strong scientific communities and competent regulatory agencies such as NBA, NEMA and KEPHIS”.

Having been involved in this debate as a science journalist, what is now clear is the need to let the different authorities established by relevant laws and guided by best scientific practices, knowledge and facts, to do their work. The rest are just side shows with own interest to serve.

Kenyan scientists have on several occasions called on politicians and the anti-GMOs movement to stop distorting discussions on GMOs but to embrace dialogue with scientists to make decisions from an informed position.

Prof. Boga called on the public not to shy away from embracing new ideas and technologies because of the perceived fears especially when scientific data and facts are available and that “Kenya should not be left behind in this era of biology”

The truth is that biotechnology revolution is irreversible with its various socioeconomic and even political implications. Kenya needs to position herself to benefit from new and emerging technologies in agriculture. Biotechnology revolution is a major cornerstone of the 21st century socio-economic progress which Kenya should not miss out on.