By Dr. Gilbert Arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
Kenya is on the brink of embracing biotechnology in agriculture.
The MIT Technology Review made the claim in October: “Kenya is thought to be on the brink of reversing its ban on GM imports.”
The news and commentary website Grist said it in June: “Kenya is on the brink of approving GMOs.”
I’ve been saying it myself for years: On the brink. On the brink. On the brink.
Now I’m ready to say something new: We’ve been on the brink for too long.
Many Kenyan farmers, like me, had hoped that 2016 finally would be the year that our National Environment Management Authority allows open field trials of Bt maize—a variety of genetically modified crop that has become common around the world. It protects plants from certain insect pests, giving us a natural way to defend our harvests from a major threat.
I’ve seen farmers grow it in other countries and I’d like to grow it on my farm too. It would allow me to produce more food for my family and country.
And yet our government dilly dallies, as it has for years. On November 30, the Kenyan National Assembly slowed us down even more when they “upheld the ban imposed on importation of GMO food by the then Minister for Public Health, Beth Mugo in 2012.”
If NEMA had given its approval to Bt maize this year, thousands of smallholder farmers might have been able to take advantage of this technology—which is standard and even taken for granted in the United States and elsewhere—as soon as 2017 or 2018.
Instead, we continue to wait.
On the brink.
Our delay comes with a consequence. It means that we’re choosing to squander a promising opportunity. It means that we’re still plagued with scientific ignorance. It means that once again, an African nation continues to lag behind the world in everything, from the adoption of technology to the simple challenge of feeding its own people.
Of even greater concern is the reality that our university students are threatening to stop taking biotechnology classes because they fear the ongoing government ban on the import of GMO food crops, originated in 2012 and recently upheld by the Kenyan National Assembly on November 30, 2016 would render them unemployable in their own country.
My hope, and that of many Kenyan scientists and farmers, is that we’ll turn this around—and that within five years, Kenya will become a leader among African nations in the adoption of biotechnology. The planting of GM maize and cotton should become commonplace, leading to increased production, more economic activity, and better food security.
Then again, I’ve been thinking this for years—and telling everybody who will listen that Kenya is “on the brink.”
Three Sub-Saharan African countries already permit the planting of GMO crops: Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Sudan. They’ve gone over the brink. Tanzania and Uganda appear ready to join them.
And Kenya? It’s the largest and most influential country in East Africa. Other countries look to us for leadership.
On GMOs, we’re poised to show the way. We know the science. We’ve issued the basic regulatory approvals, through our National Biosafety Authority. We’ve set up collaborative partnerships with the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.
Our government also has proposed a development agenda—Vision 2030—that calls for increased agricultural production.
Yet we refuse to take the next step forward. We dawdle on the brink.
I’m tired of the brink. Our population now numbers 46 million and it’s growing. We can barely feed ourselves, as subsistence farming employs about three-quarters of the population in labor-intensive, low-mechanization, and low-productivity farming. Famine currently afflicts 5 million of our countrymen and the emerging threat of climate change suggests that our challenges only will grow.
We need GMOs. They won’t make our problems vanish, but they’ll help us confront the difficulties that lie ahead. We’ll do better with them than without them.
The African continent missed the Green Revolution—the adoption of seed technologies and other inputs that spurred large increases in food production in India, Mexico, and elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s. Ever since, Kenya and its neighbors have suffered. Today, Africa is the only continent with more malnourished people compared with three decades ago.
We cannot afford to miss the Gene Revolution as well. If we do, we’ll never produce enough food and fiber for our people. We won’t industrialize as we should. We won’t break the cycle of African desperation.
We’ll be doomed to our sad fate.
There is an obvious solution. It’s simple and sensible. Say it with me: Let’s get off the brink.
Gilbert arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, Kenya. He also lectures at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Dr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).