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May 09, 2010

GM foods now part of diet in Kenya

by Joe Ombuor and Patrick Beja

The barring of a 240,000 tonne import consignment of genetically modified maize in Mombasa may be just the tip of a huge iceberg of silent plans to make such foods increasingly available in Kenya

Despite action by the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture to bar the maize from South Africa from entering the local market, details have emerged that the government ordered the consignment.

Indeed, the cargo, which has been held at a grain warehouse in Mombasa, is bound to be released into the market, followed by other bulk consignments, the Agriculture Committee says.

Importation of GM maize from South Africa, dating back to 2008, shows a sustained trend that keeps increasing in tonnage, according to the agriculture committee Chairman John Mututho. A recent report by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) for the Agriculture Committee indicated that out of 11 ships that brought maize to Mombasa between 2008 and 2009, five had GM cargo. The report, signed by former Kephis Managing Director Dr Chagema Kedera stated cargo from the five vessels was found to be GM products.

However, despite repeated Government assurance by former Agriculture Minister William Ruto that no GM food importation was going on, The South African Department of Agriculture , Forestry and Fisheries has issued a statement confirming that it exported the 240,000 tonnes of maize following a request by Kenya.

"…Kenyan Government authorities firstly authorised the import before the department could issue a commodity export permit,” said the statement in part. The statement was read in Nairobi by a South African biotechnologist attending the just ended a Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Regional Workshop on Bio safety Policy and Guidelines.

Prof Wynand J. van der Wait, speaking on behalf of the department, said among the Kenyan regulatory authorities that endorsed the importation was Kephis, the agency for quality assurance on agricultural inputs charged with inspection of agricultural imports and exports.

“When the director of Kephis labels the maize unsuitable, then he is being economical with the truth,” said Prof Wynand.

Wynand, a geneticist and plant breeder with over 30 years experience said on the sidelines of the workshop, attended by 13 of the 19 COMESA countries, that he carried out investigations on the imported maize and established that a written request was obtained by the exporter (South Africa) from the importing country (Kenya) as stipulated by an international protocol on GM foods.

“Kenyan authorities incorporating regulatory agencies such as Kephis agreed in writing to accept the maize consignment with the full knowledge that it was genetically modified,” said Prof Wynand.

“An overriding condition was that the maize must be milled soon after arrival to eliminate chances of farmers planting it in the receiving country. That could only be enforced by the Kenya Government,” he said.

“If GM maize was bad as alleged by the Parliamentary committee, the South African population could all be sick because 30 million metric tonnes of GM foods are consumed in the country. About 75 per cent of all the maize produced in South Africa is genetically modified,” said Prof Wynand.

Wynand said South Africa exports over 10,000 tons of genetically produced amino acid (lysine) to Europe for use in food processing.

Importation of GM maize started in January last year when President Kibaki declared hunger a national disaster. An international appeal he sent out to help feed 10 million hungry Kenyans at an estimated cost of Sh37 billion drew wide interest from South Africa.

A large portion of a Government imported consignment of 450,000 tonnes from South Africa and India was said to be GM maize.

“We suspect the problem is bigger than what we have found out. There could be a lot of GM food on Kenyans’ plates. We will send import samples for testing abroad and we could be shocked,” said Mututho.

Kephis Managing Director James Onsando insists tests have so far only revealed ‘accidental traces’ of genetic material.

“Some countries have allowed small quantities of GM maize for research, but we wonder why Kenya allowed in huge quantities before research,” said Mututho.


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