The GM debate is about more than biosafety
Biosafety is important, but so is ensuring that GM crops benefit the rural poor and that decisions are based on sound science.
Next month (May), after almost a decade of intense debate, Kenya is expected to become the third country in Sub-Saharan Africa — after South Africa and Burkina Faso — to approve the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Other countries are not far behind. By 2015, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda and could all be growing GM crops such as maize, rice, wheat, sorghum and cotton, according to a report published by the industry-sponsored International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
This marks a potential victory for evidence-based policy. Despite claims to the contrary, there are no documented health or environmental problems linked to GM crops.
No one denies that there are potential risks associated with planting GM crops, such as the unknown consequences of implanted genes spreading to native varieties, a concern raised in Mexico after a field trial of GM maize was authorised. But this is a reason to ensure that GM crops are closely monitored and regulated, not banned.
Biosafety laws need to be in place before farmers can grow GM crops, and this is where Nigeria's progress towards adopting the technology has faltered.
Yet by focusing on biosafety, the political debate on GM crops may overlook the broader — and more significant — issue of how such crops will be used in practice. This includes the extent to which they will meet the needs of poor farmers, who are responsible for a large proportion of Africa's agricultural output.
The big challenge ahead for those engaged in the GM debate in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is not how to promote (or block) the technology, or even demonstrate its safety, although this is clearly important.
Rather, it is to find ways to ensure that GM crops benefit the rural poor, not just the shareholders of multinational corporations who are increasingly looking at African agriculture as a profitable investment.
A question of priorities
The cost of GM seeds is one reason for concern. This is one way that agricultural corporations are keen to generate a profit on their substantial investment in both laboratory research and field trials, just as pharmaceutical companies do through drug prices.
And by using intellectual property laws, corporations can take ownership of genetic material, undermining the staple practice of farmers using (and sharing) their own seed from one year to the next.
Then there is the danger of biodiversity loss — with its impacts on insect and bird varieties — if farmers focus excessively on increasing production of the most profitable crops.
None of these problems are created by GM technology. It is quite possible to imagine GM seeds being distributed at marginal costs (like generic medicines) and being grown and distributed by farmers free of concerns over patent infringement.
Similarly, GM crops can be used to counter biodiversity loss. By introducing viral resistance genes into cassava, for example, scientists aim to increase the range of crops available by helping to preserve farmers' preferred cassava varieties, which are currently being devastated by viral diseases across East and Southern Africa.
Whether GM crops benefit all farmers therefore depends on how the technology is used. National agricultural policies need to take into account the interests and priorities of poor farmers, and give rural communities sufficient leverage over decision-making to ensure that GM crops meet locally defined needs.
Even though these are political and economic considerations, not biosafety issues, they can determine the content of regulations in individual countries. These will differ according to national needs and priorities, but they share two essential requirements.
The first is that all regulations, and the debates that occur around them, must be based on sound scientific grounds. Those who make exaggerated and simplistic claims for which there is no evidence — that GM crops are sufficient to eliminate hunger in the world, for example, or that they are a poison that contaminates the environment — are serving no one's interests but their own.
The second requirement is greater transparency. The more that multinational corporations seek to hide their involvement in lobbying for biosafety regulations, the greater the risk of criticism when their involvement becomes known.
For example, when WikiLeaks revealed the involvement of the US Embassy in Nairobi in helping to secure initial approval of Kenya's biosafety legislation two years ago, there was a backlash from environmental NGOs.
Science journalism has a key role to play in ensuring that both these needs are met. It can query the scientific basis of claims both in favour and against GM crops. It can also make the regulatory process more transparent and ensure that it withstands public scrutiny by monitoring and reporting on special-interest groups.
No one expects GM crops to be the magic key to eliminating hunger in Africa. But neither, if they are properly regulated, need they produce the environmental Armageddon that opponents predict.
The real challenge is how best to achieve the benefits, including those it offers to small farmers, while identifying and minimising the potential risks — and maintaining public trust along the way. Sound science, full transparency, and a media committed to both are three steps in this direction.