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  • Kenya's scientists urged to engage in GM debate

[NAIROBI] Kenya's agriculture secretary is urging researchers to join the debate on genetically modified (GM) foods — and not leave the issues to politicians.

Wilson Songa, who is also a practising scientist, said that, by keeping quiet, scientists are putting the public at risk of being misled by politicians.

There has been fierce debate at a high level about allowing the import of GM maize to improve food security, and some politicians have claimed that GM foods are harmful.

"Our research institutions have experts who can educate the public and save them from dangerous propaganda," said Songa. With the Horn of Africa faced with severe drought and crippling food shortages, he said scientists should inform the public of alternative options.

"We [scientists] must no longer be cowed into silence as our people face starvation year in year out while politicians make wild allegations," he said.

Songa was speaking at the fellowships awards ceremony for African Women in Agricultural Research and Development last month (18 August). He said scientists feared being seen to contradict ministers and policymakers.

Shaukat Abdulrazak, head of the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST), told SciDev.Net that scientific bodies such as the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) and the National Biosafety Authority must educate the public, but stressed that this should be about the drawbacks of GM crops as well as their benefits.

"Scientists have a responsibility to link science with society. They must be proactive and inform the public on the pros and cons of GM technology. They must engage politicians and provide facts and figures for them," he said.

Abdulrazak said that although scientists have been commenting on GM organisms (GMOs), it has been mainly within their 'comfort zone' — classrooms and conferences. "When scientists engage in public debate there is a suspicion that they are interested in politics," he said.

He said that Kenyans are yet to have confidence in the ability of their scientific institutions to deal with the pressure from abroad to introduce GM foods.

But Shem Wandiga, managing trustee at the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations in Kenya, which is associated with UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), said that rather than fearing to enter the GM debate, scientists are avoiding "unnecessary controversy".

Wandiga said that the civilised approach would be for governments and policymakers to seek the opinion of scientists, which would then be given in a "sober manner".

"But when politicians shoot from the hip like they have been doing in this case, then we do not want to get sucked into the mess.

"It is not that Kenya lacks scientists that can give advice but when there are vested interests, like in the GM maize importation, then we do not need to get involved," he said.

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