[NAIROBI] Scientists fear that Kenya's recent banning of the import of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be a significant blow to progress on biotechnology research and development in the country.
A cabinet meeting chaired by Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, this month (8 November), directed the public health minister to ban GMO imports until the country is able to certify that they have no negative impact on people's health.
In a statement to the press, the cabinet said there was a "lack of sufficient information on the public health impact of such foods".
"The ban will remain in effect until there is sufficient information, data and knowledge demonstrating that GMO foods are not a danger to public health," it added.
The directive comes three years after the government's establishment of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), tasked with exercising general supervision and control of the transfer, handling and use of GMOs.
The NBA board chair, Miriam Kinyua, tells SciDev.Net that for now, the government directive will stand. However, she added that researchers will continue to provide the government with information arising from research into GMO safety, so that a possible review of the directive can be undertaken.
Kinyua says biotechnology research in Kenya will continue, as the ban does not infringe upon existing research and development activities. She also thinks the directive could help intensify research to provide sufficient data and knowledge on biotechnology.
Richard Okoth, a biotechnology scientist at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, feels that the government's imposition of a ban while continuing to fund research on biotechnology through the National Council for Science and Technology is a contradictory position.
"The essence of GMO research is to provide a product that can complement efforts towards food security. This ban will discourage research, as the product for which the research is being conducted has been placed on import ban," Okoth said.
Biotechnology research funding might be compromised, as international donors could be reluctant to provide funds following the ban, he adds.
But the African Biodiversity Network (ABN), a regional research network based in Kenya, supports the step taken by the government and calls for the ban's strict implementation.
"The ban should be strictly implemented and the regulatory institutions should be empowered to enable them do assessment on all imports to safeguard against the bypassing of the law," says Gathuru Mburu, ABN's coordinator.
Kenya only has three biosafety officers, and poor infrastructure and human capacity may make implementing the ban very challenging.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.