ISAAA 2009 report on global impact of biotech crops highlighted four major benefits accrued from the planting of biotech/GM crops in the world. These include increase in productivity through better yielding crops and lowered cost of weed control hence higher income and food security.
An indirect benefit is decreased deforestation since with increased productivity; less forest will be cut down to increase crop production. The environment is also conserved from reduced pesticide and herbicide use by herbicide and pesticide resistant crops like Bt cotton. It has also contributed to decreased green-house gases which generally contribute to global warming. So GM crops reduce global warming.
There have also been social benefits; increased crop production has lead to better income and hence better nutrition to children better healthcare and access to education. Since biotech crop require less time for spraying or weeding, women who are the ones who tend to the farm will have more time to attend to the family. Biofortified crops like Golden rice have greatly reduced malnutrition in Asian countries.
Despite these benefits there has been a heated debate on whether this technology should be adopted in Kenya or in Africa at large. The debate on agricultural biotechnology in many African countries oscillates between two extreme views. On the one hand are the diehard proponents of biotechnology who are impatient to have the technology adopted at all costs and present it as the ‘magic bullet’ and panacea to the multitude of problems facing African countries. On the other hand are the anti-biotechnology groups who front concerns for human health and environmental wholesomeness as reasons to stop the technology.
The first group gets its argument from the already achieved benefits of the technology highlighted by ISAAA and the potential benefits from the technology. As much there are these already reported and potential benefits from biotech crops, the GM technology should be adopted in a well regulated system to ensure that GM technology is safely and responsibly adopted in a way that the potential risks which will be highlighted next are not realized. A biosafety system is required to ensure that the technology is not used in a way that harm the consumers or as biological warfare tool.
Despite the benefits highlighted above, there are legitimate concerns on biotech crops. One of the main concerns is on ‘monkeying on Mother Nature or playing God’. This is based on religious and ethical standpoints of various people. For example the Vegetarians may reasonably decide that their food should not contain genes derived from animals or specifically from pigs in the case of Jews and Muslims. These however should not be the basis of denying a technology with proven benefit to other people. It is also unethical to let other die say of hunger because one doesn’t approve food containing genes from animals. Labelling, of the GMO food provides choice to the consumers.
Environmental concerns: There are concerns that the introduction of GM crops might lead to a reduction in biodiversity (the variety of plants and animals in the wild), particularly in areas where a crop originated and a wide range of natural genetic variation is found. There might also be unexpected consequences of gene transfer (or ‘gene flow’) between plants, for example an irreversible or uncontrollable ‘escape’ of genes into neighboring wild plants by pollen. There are also concerns that pests or weeds could acquire resistance to crops. The solution to this concern is rigorous testing. Scientists must study the plants growing wild in the area, determine which are closely related to the modified crop, experiment to see if hybridization is possible, and require that the crop be grown only in conditions for which hybridization is very unlikely. Or else, determine that the trait, in the wild relative, will not matter much. The risk of gene flow must be assessed in a case by case basis. It is also important to have sufficient seed banks to conserve genetic resources of crops effectively.
Another concern has been on the safety of GM crops, some people feel that the effects of GM crops on human health are not yet adequately understood. There are concerns about the use of viral DNA during the modification process, and some question whether there would be new health risks if genes introduced in a GM crop were to be taken up by the human body. The safety of GM crops is often assessed by comparison with the closest conventional counterparts. Genetic engineered crops need to be tested for safety. In the US, transgenic crops are tested much more strictly than crops developed by traditional breeding. So far the testing that has been carried out has been sufficient to protect the public. During the ten years that they have been eating transgenic foods, nobody has ever been exposed to unsafe genetic engineered food. Meanwhile there have been many thousands of deaths because of unsafe conventional food. In fact, conventional breeding techniques where improving crops involve luck whereas to a great extent, genetic engineers know what they are doing and what to expect.
There are also economic and social concerns: Although the gene transfer technology is available worldwide, some people worry that a few large companies will hold monopoly to GM seeds. In fact five agricultural biotechnology corporations now control most of the technology needed to develop GM crops, as well as the agrochemicals and crop germplasm (tissue from which new plants can be grown, for example seeds, plants or leaves). There are concerns that companies and those who own intellectual property rights have undue influence over the availability of GM crops. Access to this technology and germplasm is crucial for further research. Additionally, much of GM research currently only serves the interests of large-scale farmers in developed countries, for example by focusing on traits such as herbicide tolerance. This means the technology would not be focused on the benefit to the poor farmers. This is a very real concern; local governments should seek to develop research industry to ensure that they are not fully dependent on these large companies. International laws like antitrust law can also provide some solution.
Effect on trade; Will GM crops only be of benefit to large-scale farmers? How would they contribute to international trade? Although GM crops primarily benefit large-scale farmers, many small-scale farmers in China and South Africa have already successfully grown GM cotton. In China, yields were estimated to have increased by 10%compared to non-GM crops, and the amount of pesticide used fell by as much as 80%, leading to an increase in profits. The efficiency of agriculture has a major impact on the standard of living in most developing countries. It is also important to consider the implications that the introduction of GM crops may have for international trade. Exports from Kenya include tea, coffee, sugar, flowers and horticultural crops.
If Kenya is commercialize GM crops involving the above crops they might lose out on trade with countries like Europe, this is a hard decision to make considering the benefits that can be accrued from Gm crops. This can be solved by ensuring that GM crops are labeled for traceability in that crops for export to these countries are segregated from genetically modified crops. This however is a source of another debate, labeling will increase the overall cost of GM crops at the point of ensuring segregation (an estimated 25% increase) Kenya is in the process of finalizing labeling regulations where it has adopted compulsory labeling of crops with more than 5% by weight GM crops.
There is largely no culture of labeling other than identifying the different products generically. It is highly unlikely, given the literacy and poverty levels in Kenya, that labeling would influence consumer choices. In terms of economics, consumers buy as much food as they can afford and normally for immediate consumption. It is not unusual for a vendor to unpack products that are sold in large quantities and repackage these for sale to customers who can only afford much smaller quantities than the ones in which the product ordinarily comes. Labeling will therefore be fully aimed at keeping international trade and in risk management.
Most of the above concerns are legitimate, there are however other concern that are propagated with no scientific backing at all. Most of these concerns surface during the GMO maize debate in Kenya. They include; GMO maize cause infertility, that GMOs are simply poison, concern that Kenyans are being used as guinea pigs according to one cabinet minister and many others. Most of these concerns show the level of lack of information on GMOs’ benefits or risks.
For example there is also the suggestion that GM crops should not be used because there may be a very low probability of the occurrence of an unpredictable adverse effect on the environment or on human health. This case is frequently argued in terms of the so called precautionary principle. The argument is that, irrespective of possible benefits, a new technology should never be introduced unless there is a guarantee that no risk will arise. This approach is impractical since there is nothing like NO risk for any technology.
In order to reap from the benefits and avoid the potential problems of GMOs, Kenya has The Biosafety act NO 2 in place which constituted the National Biosafety Authority, the body charged with handling GMO issues in the country. Kenya also has in place the Biotechnology policy of 2006 and contained use, import and transit regulations in place. These are laws and systems in place to ensure the safe application of GM technology in the country. In order for one to get an approval to carry out any GMO work or importation, NBA carries out risk assessment to ensure that the said activity will have no negative impact on human health or the environment.
I therefore support the commercialization of GMOs in the country as long as the Biosafety Act is followed and proper regulation by the NBA is enforced.