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  • Kenyan scientists berate government for GM 'slowness'


[NAIROBI] A year after Kenya's president approved legislation that would allow the cultivation of GM crops, researchers and biotechnology students have expressed concern that the law has not been implemented.

The president, Mwai Kibaki, signed off parliament's approval of the legislation in February 2009 (see Kenya approves GM after years of delays), a decade after attempts were first made to legislate GM organisms. During this time civil society organisations were vigorously opposed to the legislation.

The next step was to set up a National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to implement the legislation but, one year on, it has not materialised.

Stephen Mugo, a senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Research Center's Global Maize Program in Kenya, said: "It would have been good to have the biosafety regulations ready soon after the Biosafety Law was enacted. This would have assisted commercialisation of biotech products".

He said that, although existing biosafety guidelines allow the cultivation of GM crops for research, they do not permit key national performance trials of varieties — the final testing stage, in which a GM crop is compared with others.

Mugo said scientists need to know whether the regulations will require separate approval for each variety or for each transgenic 'event' — the process of inserting genes. Many countries approve an event, enabling the simultaneous release of several crop varieties with the same genetic modification.

Biotechnology students have also said they are unhappy about the lack of opportunities in their sector.

Serah Kahiu, a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, said many public universities are offering biotechnology courses driven by the interest created during the long build-up to the passing of the law.

"The delay has prohibited entry of serious industry players — denying students, researchers and universities key private sector funds that could boost education and research."

The government has, however, set up an interim NBA which is about to hire staff.

Harrison Macharia, the NBA's interim chief executive officer, dismissed claims that nothing had been happening.

He compared the NBA's progress with that of the National Environmental Management Authority, which, 11 years after the passing of the Environmental Management and Coordination law, is still enacting it.

"Why do people think the biosafety law should wholly be implemented at once?"

Julius Mugwagwa, a visiting research fellow at the United Kingdom's Open University and an African biotechnology policy expert, told SciDev.Net it is understandable that the law's implementation is taking time.

Tensions that arose between pro- and anti-GM groups during the approval process "have not simply gone away". And the technicalities of establishing the NBA are not easy.

"The many ministries involved have all got an interest, right down to the recruitment of staff. It's actually getting those things done on the ground that proves to be difficult."

He expects the NBA to be up and running this year, after which applications for the cultivation of GM crops, for example, will be approved on a case-by-case basis.

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