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[NAIROBI] Kenya's long-awaited biosafety law is likely to become operational this month — well over a year after its president approved the legislation.

President Mwai Kibaki signed off parliament's approval of the biosafety legislation in February 2009, after a decade of controversy about the advisability of allowing the commercialisation of genetically modified organisms.

Last month, agriculture minister William Ruto confirmed that the biosafety guidelines had been finalised. Now, Harrison Macharia — chief science secretary of the newly created National Biosafety Authority (NBA) — confirmed to SciDev.Net that the gazetting of the bill, and thus its official commencement date, will happen this month.

Kenya will become the fourth African country to implement such legislation, after Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa.

Muo Kasina, principal research officer at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute said that research that has so far been held back because of a lack of legislation will now be able to undergo open field trials, and mass production of GMOs will attract more investment.

He added that the regulations will encourage transgenic research and help address the country's brain drain.

"Having the biosafety regulations in place will ensure the products meet standards for commercialisation and provide the basis for product stewardship," said Kasina.

"This will have a positive impact on the commercialisation of such products since they will be assessed under the expected conditions of their use."

The Africa Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum's senior programmes officer, Felix M'mboyi, said its members are planning to carry out open field trials with GM crops, including BT cotton and maize, later this year.

But Ann Kingiri — a plant pathologist who recently completed a PhD on Kenya's biosafety system at the UK-based Open University — said that although Kenya has the scientific capacity to steer itself towards the transgenic path, its regulatory and institutional capacities are not as well equipped to cope with the flow of technology expected to come with the commercial production of GMOs.

"Institutional capacity respective to regulatory agencies needs to be streamlined to, for instance, handle the hurdles involved in lengthy seed certification process," she said.

"The NBA also needs to train and employ biosafety officers to ensure it operates independently."

"Kenya is blessed with a rich diversity of species, including a rich agro-biodiversity on rural subsistence farms," said Dino Martins, a researcher with Nature Kenya — the East Africa Natural History Society. "The new technologies require very sophisticated analysis and tools and systems that Kenya, as a developing country, just does not have and cannot afford."

And Miriam Kinyua, a biotechnologist at Moi University, Kenya, called on the NBA board to acknowledge its ignorance in some of the areas it will now have to work on. Kenya should not rush into the production of GMOs because it still lacks adequate capacity to deal safely with technologies associated with it, she said.

"[Allowing GMOs] depends on whether we will work with propaganda or facts," she told SciDev.Net." I expect the responsible board to be guided by facts as we try to put structures in place and strengthen the existing ones."