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[NAIROBI] Kenya's government has made a controversial move to allow the import of genetically modified (GM) maize from South Africa to fight hunger and starvation, even though GM crops cannot yet be legally grown in the country.

The UN estimates that 2.5 million people in Kenya are in urgent need of food, a figure expected to rise to three million soon.

Following a cabinet meeting last month (14 July), the government said that GM maize can be imported on condition that it is not used as seed; that products are clearly labelled; and that it is certified by the National Biosafety Authority.

Science and technology minister Hellen Sambili said that embracing modern biotechnology crops was aimed at cushioning Kenyans against current drought and at gaining food sustainability.

But this has sparked off a fierce exchange between proponents and critics of GM technology. Some politicians have accused the government of using food security to force GM maize on the country, even though GM organisms (GMOs) have been resisted in the past.

Public health minister Beth Mugo had earlier said the country has no capacity to test the safety of GM food.

The chairman of the parliamentary committee on agriculture, John Mututho, told SciDev.Net: "GM maize is not even consumed in South Africa — why should we introduce it here?"

Mututho said non-GM maize could be imported from countries such as Malawi, as well as parts of parts of Kenya's central province where rain has been normal.

But former minister of agriculture, William Ruto, and agriculture secretary, Wilson Songa, have publicly voiced support for GM maize, saying the country cannot run away from the technology. Ruto said Kenya should import the GM maize and politicians should leave scientists to verify its suitability.

John Kariuki, director of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute's (KARI) Naivasha centre, said no country can feed its people without embracing GM technology.

He said that KARI, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) and government chemists could test the environmental safety and suitability of GMOs.

The chair of the National Biosafety Authority, Miriam Kinyua, agreed that Kenya has the capacity to test GM crops, as the biotechnology department at Nairobi University is a major testing facility, and there are four other centres in the country with skilled staff who can carry out thorough tests on GMOs.

"We have guidelines, and regulations are being published; Kenya has the capacity to check the status of GMOs," said Kinyua, who also blamed controversies about GMOs for the delay in publishing regulations.

KEPHIS managing director, James Onsando, dismissed the fears and criticisms as unfounded, saying the maize has been tested and used elsewhere and all that is required are thorough checks by relevant agencies, as in Egypt and South Africa.