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Why the lifting of the GMO ban in Kenya spells doom to millions of smallholder farmers

Zachary Makanya

By Zachary Makanya

Many of us have been cautioning Kenyans not to embrace GMOs for a long time and we thought our reasons were clear to all. We were very happy that the Government of His Excellency Hon Mwai Kibaki listened and respected the wishes of the Kenyan farmers and consumers to ban the commercialization of GMOs in Kenya.

The reasons we had against GMOs have not changed and with time, many governments have become wiser and are banning GMO technology instead of embracing it. For example, the Government of Scotland banned GMOs in August 2015. President Uhuru Kenyatta held the ban for another 10 years of his presidency. It is therefore very disheartening to see HE President Dr. William Ruto opening doors while other Governments in the world have been closing and sealing all the gaps that may have led to the introduction of GMOs in Kenya.

First, it should be noted that many people are not against Biotechnology in totality. Biotechnology has been with us for a long time: beer-making, bread-making, yoghurt production, grafting, hybridizations, and more recently, tissue culture. Many farmers are not against any of these forms of Biotechnologies and indeed many are eager they should be continued and improved. However, there is another branch of biotechnology called Genetic Engineering or Genetic Modification which is dangerous for the future of seed and food security in the world.

Why should Kenyans and all people refuse GMOs in agriculture? Why is the lifting of the GMO ban spell doom for Kenyan farmers? Why should Kenyan farmers kiss goodbye to the seeds they have saved, nurtured, managed, and inherited over many years?

It is a known fact that pollen grains can be spread a long distance through open pollination (wind/insects). These crops include maize, sorghum, wheat, etc. GMO crops can therefore never co-exist with non-GMO crops of the same species without the risk of contaminating them. This contamination of non-GM crops by GM crops has 2 direct effects on African smallholder farmers:


  1. The local farmers will lose their indigenous seeds through this contamination. This is a great loss since the African farmers have endeavored to save the seeds, they “trust and know” over centuries. These seeds unlike the GMO seeds and hybrid seeds, keep on producing healthy and productive seeds, unlike the latter whose production wane with time and forces small holder farmers to keep on buying these shop seeds.
  2. The African farmers who may be found with GM crops growing on their farms may be prosecuted for violating the law of patents.


In the US, there are over 30,000 cases in a court of local farmers being accused of having GM crops through no fault of their own and especially if the crops enter their farm via open pollination. Due to the patent law, these farmers are being fined heavy fines. Is this the direction the new government wants to take its farmers?


GM crops do not necessarily have higher yields. South Africa is touted as a country where GM Industry is doing well. However, the famous Makhatini Bt. Cotton in KwaZulu Natal province is a case in point. This project had an initial of 3,000 farmers who were heavily supported through credits and subsidies. With time and due to the high costs of the Bt Cotton seeds and the inability of the farmers to pay loan, the support could not be sustained and hence withdrawn. As a result, many farmers dropped planting the cotton crop, and currently only less than 10% of farmers planting Bt cotton.


It is also on record that recently, Burkina Faso, one of the few countries in Africa to embrace GM cotton, is reducing GM cotton production as farmers continually seek compensation for low yields and bad quality cotton. Over the last few years, over 20,000 farmers in India have committed suicide because of indebtedness and their dependence on GE seeds. Such people commit suicide because by embracing GMOs, they end up being or even sharing their seeds. The reason is obvious – they want the farmers to keep on buying seeds from their seed-producing companies.


It is important to note that over 80% of the smallholder farmers in Africa today save their on-farm-produced seeds for the next season. The farmers do this because they cannot afford the hybrids seeds from seed companies for every planting. The smallholder farmers will not afford the GM seeds just as they cannot afford the hybrid seeds.


Kenyan farmers should ask themselves why is it that even when there is a lot of maize in the Rift Valley or in the Cereals Board, their neighboring pastoralists in North Rift or in Northeastern cannot afford the cheap maize available from their next-door neighbors and must get relief food most of the time? Do they get relief food because there is no food in the rift valley and in other parts of Kenya? Why should farmers who produce food go hungry?


Brazil is the third largest net producer and exporter of food, and it is one of the leading producers of GM food in the world. Yet and sadly, over 30 % of Brazilians go hungry and cannot afford food. Argentina produces rice that is enough to feed both India and China. Yet, over 25 % of Argentines live below the poverty line and cannot even afford the rice Argentina produces!


But why is it that the Kenyans, the Brazilians, and the Argentines cannot buy the food produced in their own countries? It is all because their communities live in abject poverty and cannot afford what they produce. Thus, the availability of food in a country is not a direct result of food security for its population.


The GM proponents argue that GE crops will reduce the use of chemicals. However, close scrutiny of the real situation of GE crops being promoted reveals some interesting trends. Presently it is estimated that over 80 % of all the GE crops in the world are herbicide tolerant.


This means that most of the GE crops being promoted are only tolerant to certain herbicides or weed killers. Thus, those growing these GM crops are forced to buy herbicides or weed killers from manufacturing companies. The most common one is called Glyphosate, commonly known as “Round Up”. The cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogenic”, in other words, it probably causes cancer. The adoption of glyphosate-tolerant crops dramatically increases the use of this dangerous chemical, posing a great risk to smallholder farmers, consumers, farm laborers, soil, water courses, and food chains, and food webs.


After 30 years of experience with the GM crops, the problems associated with GM crops are clearly emerging. For example, the first Bt maize made available in South Africa has been withdrawn as stock maize borer has adapted to the poison the crop makes. The company that introduced it had to compensate farmers for extensive crop damage when the technology failed. It is disheartening to note that this same crop, which has failed in South Africa, is the one set loss for planting in Kenya.

So, what is the way forward?

  1. The Government of Kenya should make sure that the ban is still on
  2. The government should organize a meeting for all stakeholders so that we explain our case with facts and figures on why GMOs should be banned in Kenya, in Africa, and in the whole world. There is a great need to expose the open lies being perpetuated and because they are repeated day in and day out sound like the truth.

Who will protect the seeds of the smallholder farmers? Who will guard the interests of the small-holder farmers? It is gratifying to note that the governments of His Excellency Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta upheld the ban on GMOs.


HE President William Ruto has come out as the one that listens to its people. It should live up to that expectation by enforcing the ban rather than lifting it. And unless the ban is enforced, Kenyan farmers must kiss goodbye the local seeds they have saved, nurtured, managed, and inherited over many years. It will be one act of great betrayal of the Kenyan present and future generations by the new government.


The author is the Chief Executive Officer of Rural Initiatives Development Programme (RIDEP), a community based organization working in Tharaka.  


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Byron Adonis Mutingwende