Kenyan farmers skeptical, lack knowledge about GMOs

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A diseased stalk of maize in western Kenya.

Malava, Kenya – With a maize disease spreading across western Kenya, farmers are in need of seed alternatives and some are advocating the use of seeds genetically modified to fight disease.

However, genetically modified crops (aka GMOs, genetically modified organisms) are not yet a viable option for smallholder farmers. They are not an option for any farmer in Kenya.

The Kenyan government announced a ban of GMOs at the end of 2012. Only a year earlier it used GM corn to meet the emergency hunger needs of Kenyans caused by the drought across the Horn of Africa.

“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,” said the official statement.

The government announced that testing would commence in 2013 to determine the safety of bringing GMOs into Kenya. Pressure is on Kenya to change course and allow GMOs to gain entrance from advocates and even the US.

While Western nations battle over whether or not to label foods as GM or whether to ban them altogether, Kenya is still in the process of determining if they should be legalized. At a time when rain patterns are changing and people living in the north are vulnerable to drought, the potential of improved seed presents a lot of promise for Kenyan farmers.

Analysts say it was driven behind the claims that GMOs caused cancer in rats, by Gilles-Eric Séralini and his fellow researchers in Food and Chemical Toxicology. Though the findings have been widely refuted, opponents continue to use it as evidence of problems with GMOs.

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“We cannot say that all GMOs are safe. This is precisely why the technology is regulated, and GMOs tested on a case-by-case basis in accordance with international treaties on biosafety,” wrote journalist Linda Nordling in SciDevNet following the Kenyan government announcement.

Occasional articles draw attention to the issue and there are rumors that Kenya will soon reverse its ruling, but there is little evidence to show there is progress. One group left out of the discussion are the smallholder farmers who will be impacted by the import of GM seeds.

“You never hear about what the farmers would like. Instead the people arguing against [GMO cultivation] have an easy life style—many have no food issues and live in cities and have no idea how tedious it is to produce food by hand, weeding, and the risks of pest outbreaks,” said Cornell researcher Peter Hobbes to the Epoch Times.

National media reports on GMOs from time to time, but they stories are not reaching everyone. The few that have herd about GM seeds are skeptical, but most people do not know they even exist.

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Scientific changes to farming are suspect to Jackson Wanyani. He uses hybrid seed that are certified by the Kenyan government to grow maize, sugar cane and vegetables on his farm. He heard from someone that GM seeds will reduce the planting time, but opposes their use.

“I’d be happy if Kenya say no to GMOs,” he said.

If seeds are provided for free, he says he is willing to try them out on a small plot and see what happens. The seed seller at the Malava Agrovet shares Wanyani’s skepticism. He learned about GM seeds through the radio and by reading the newspaper.

Like Wanyani, he wants to see them actually work before using them himself or endorsing them for customer use. Both say that most Kenyans are not aware of what GM seeds are. They suspect that Kenyans will greet the arrival of GM seeds with caution.

Numerous conversations with other farmers affirms the lack of knowledge. They say that they have never heard of GM or GMOs before.

While the debate about whether or not GMOs should be introduced in Kenya, many of the farmers are left on the sidelines. Opponents like Wanyani are more skeptical about the impact than concerned with the supposed health and environmental problems they carry. For anti-GMO activists and supporters alike, it means that there is an opportunity to adjust their campaigns.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.