7 December 2012 | EN
Kenya has bypassed its own biosafety watchdog in banning GM foods, which will stifle balanced debate of GM in Africa, says Linda Nordling.
Last month, the Kenyan government banned imports of genetically modified (GM) foods, a move that took the country's National Biosafety Authority — Kenya's biotechnology watchdog — by surprise. The cabinet, chaired by Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, did not consult its own biosafety experts before making the decision.
This sets a dangerous precedent for crop biotechnology in Africa: it undermines the authority of Kenya's regulator and sends the wrong message to other countries concerned about GM organisms (GMOs) and health.
It perpetuates ignorance about biotechnology and will not help the continent to have a more balanced public debate about its pros and cons.
Cancer scare with maize
The Kenyan government's decision comes in the wake of a controversial paper by Gilles-Eric Séralini and colleagues in Food and Chemical Toxicology that claimed a link between long-term GM maize diets and cancer in rats. 
The paper has prompted an avalanche of criticism from other scientists, attacking both the methods and conclusions. The European Food Safety Authority has rejected the paper's findings, and scientists have called for the journal to retract the paper.
But it has found support in other parts of the world — and from some scientists. In India and Russia, it has fuelled existing anti-GM feelings.
In Africa the disquiet is not limited to Kenya's cabinet. Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, is rumoured to have said that he wants to delay signing the country's biotechnology bill into law until he is convinced of the safety of GM technology.
Right to take positions
It is important to point out that the presidents and ministers that have taken recent GMO health warnings to heart are completely within their right to do so.
Scientists sometimes forget that although they may want evidence-based policymaking to be the gold standard, politicians do not have to blindly follow their lead.
But where a government has set up a watchdog precisely to help it set the course in areas where the evidence is difficult to navigate, you would expect it to be at least consulted ahead of major decisions.
Yet Kenya's National Biosafety Authority was not consulted even though its mandate, as stated on its website, is to "ensure safety of human and animal health and provide adequate protection of the environment from harmful effects that may result from genetically modified organisms".
A question of trust
There is no doubt that Kenya's knee-jerk reaction has undermined the authority of the biosafety authority. The organisation did not want to be interviewed for this article, but it is clear that its staff is concerned by the decision.
But the action reveals an alarming lack of trust by the government in its scientific advisors. This is a problem for those seeking ways to unlock the benefits that biotechnology could bring to Africa.
Trust — be it between policymakers, farmers, scientists or the wider public — is highlighted in a recent report as a vital factor for the successful development and application of biotechnology in Africa.
The concern will not be confined to Kenya. The country is seen as a forerunner in biotechnology adoption in Africa, and its actions have implications for its neighbours.
Work with the regulators
The Kenyan episode could also be a setback in the move towards more open debate about biotechnology on the continent.
Kenya's government said on 21 November that it will appoint a scientific inquiry to investigate the safety of GMOs. But 'safe' is a loaded word, especially when applied to technological innovation.
We cannot say that all GMOs are safe. This is precisely why the technology is regulated, and GMOs tested on a case-by-case basis in accordance with international treaties on biosafety.
The Séralini paper has re-ignited the important debate about how we measure the safety of GMOs. This debate will lead to better regulation, regardless of whether the paper's claims are discredited.
But for these regulatory systems to protect us, governments must work within them — even when scares hit the news.
Circumventing the regulatory process and shutting down GM food imports, as Kenya has done, without consulting its biosafety experts, shows a lack of confidence in the system.
This is the real cancer threatening African biotechnology policymaking.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.
Eduardo ( University of Puerto Rico | Puerto Rico )
10 December 2012
Journalist should inform at least both points of view (at least), but Ms. Nordling takes openly the side of big companies like Monsanto that are taking over the seed business from farmers, with the money they made selling poisons like Agent Orange, PCB and roundup. Biodiversity preservation, people health and other concerns make the use of GM's as expensive and dangerous as nuclear energy. Both technologies are promoted big big business and politicians, and also "buy " scientists' opinions.
Monsanto controls USDA, EPA, FDA, and US government.
Only small farmers, NGOs and ecology minded groups are opposing the chemical-seed monopoly. I wish that SciDev.Net stops promoting their views!
Gilbert arap Bor ( Catholic University of Eastern Africa | Kenya )
13 December 2012
Journalist Linda Nording has simply things straight. Kenya has in place the necessary regulatory framework for the effective control of all types of plant and other organism import and trade in the country, including safe delivery of GM crops and foods. The issues raised by the journalist are correct: the government simply circumvented the existing processes. The Kenya National Biosafety Authority (NBA) legally was created by the same government, to supervise and control the transfer, handling and use of GMOs. The NBA has within its ranks highly qualified scientists capable of carrying out the mandate of regulating the research and commercial activities involving GMOs to ensure the safety of human and animal health and the protection of the environment. The NBA operates transparently and is expected to use clear science-based processes to make its regulatory decisions and to advise the government. What the Kenyan Cabinet did was to make a "populist" political decision to ban the imports of GM foods. It did so in total disregard of existing regulatory processes and rendered the work of its own NBA redundant. I agree with Linda that this action send the wrong signals. Kenyan farmers are now worried that our hope of soon getting GM seeds to advance our production capabilities and to produce more food for the country may now be in limbo. We hope that the new government that we shall elect on 4th March, 2013 will rescind the unilateral decision and let science guide us in our quest for food security.
Arthur Makara ( Uganda )
15 December 2012
The Kenyan action was reactionary indeed! It undermines the very Government that took it. Linda has a point.
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