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[NAIROBI] The Kenyan government plans to pass its proposed biosafety bill next month (December) following years of delays.

Mary Kamau, a director from the research and technical training division of the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, said the Biosafety Bill 2008 should be passed before the Kenyan parliament breaks up for Christmas. After that it will go to President Mwai Kibaki for approval or rejection.

If the bill is not passed by the time government breaks up on December 11, it cannot be passed before March 2009, when parliament reconvenes.

The legislation will enable a National Biosafety Authority to oversee rapid developments in modern biotechnology and provide the legal framework to allow the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

But a group of 53 civil society organisations, including the US-based Worldwatch Institute and UK-based GAIA Foundation, are opposing the legislation with an online petition and protest marches.

They claim that genetically modified plants and animals might infiltrate indigenous farming and cause diseases in humans, and that patents and licensing fees could make small independent farmers dependent on international agri-businesses.

Kenya's government spokesman Alfred Mutua dismissed the online petition last month (18 October), saying that the bill will help shield local agriculture from potentially negative effects of new biotechnology.

"The government has been very clear in terms of our need for food sustainability but also in terms of protecting our farmers," Mutua told SciDev.Net. 

The bill has been in the planning stages for four years (see Will Kenya's Biosafety Bill of 2005 ever become law?).

The 2008 bill, which is similar to one proposed in 2007, has been considered this year by two parliamentary committees — agriculture, land and natural resources as well as education, science and technology.

Kenya's minister for agriculture, William Ruto, said the latest delays (last month) were because of efforts to pass Kenya's new power-sharing constitution before the end of the year.

Scientists, agricultural organisations and policymakers have tried to introduce and regulate genetically modified organisms in Kenya since 1998. When the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was opened for signatures in 2000, Kenya was the first country to sign up.

In 2007, member of parliament Davis Nakitare proposed legislation to ban genetically modified organisms in Kenya, but it was rejected by the government.

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute has been carrying out laboratory and field research on transgenic maize, sweet potato, cassava and cotton crops as well as the rinderpest vaccine while waiting for the legislation to be passed.