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July 29, 2011

Ways sought to change Kenyan attitudes against GM technology

Kenya is among leading African nations in agriculture technology research but to an average Kenyan, the mention of genetically modified (GM) food for example is treated with didain.

This is despite the fact that most Kenyans wear clothes that have been made using cotton that is grown using GMOs and a sizable number have consumed GM foods bought from supermarket shelves

“We have failed to communicate as scientists,” said Shaukat Abdulrazak, the chief executive of the National Council for Science and Technology. “We need to end the reaction mode when biotechnology issues come up for debate in this country.”

The problem, he said, is that scientists have not communicated effectively to Kenyans what biotechnology means and what benefits it can bring in their lives as well as its risks. The current debate was ignited by the decision by the government to allow import of GM maize from South Africa to meet the current maize deficit in the country. Maize is Kenya’s staple food.

Environmental activists have had a field day with protests and media events to denounce the GMOs while politicians seeking populist gains have also denounced the technology.

“Is the government aware that consuming GM food causes the cancer of reproductive organs?” asked Joshua Kutuny, the Member of Parliament for Cherangany Constituency when the issue came up for debate in parliament on Thursday.

Abdulrazak told scientists at a forum to launch a plan to raise awareness on biotechnology in Nairobi that this should be the last time the science community is caught unawares in a debate that it should have helped avoid.

“The farmers are asking: where are the scientists to explain to us what biotechnology is? We risk being dragged behind if we fail to create awareness on technologies we develop. Biotechnology will help us produce more from less and this should be clear to a Kenyan,” he said.

Most media outlets in Kenya including television and print media have been highlighting the negative effects of GM crops.This fact has left scientists in a vulnerable situation where what they have struggled to come up with to help farmers is now being rejected partly because they failed to communicate better to their target audience.

Agriculture Secretary Wilfred Songa said Kenya risks losing out on very important technology if the public backlash is allowed to continue based n misinformation.

“There is a knowledge gap of people talking about GMOs, so the scientists who are knowledgeable on this issue must reach out to the public to create awareness,” he said.He noted that Kenya cannot afford to abandon biotechnology when the country’s population is increasing by 1 million people every year.

He gave an example of tissue culture banana, which has been technologically developed to give better yields early and produce better banana fruits. It is estimated that it has tripled production of bananas in Kenya in the last 10 years.

Kenya plans to introduce commercialized GM cotton in 2014, and thereafter GM maize. GM trials of both crops are ongoing.

Kenyan scientists under the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute are developing drought resistant maize and bio- fortified sorghum.

This year, Kenya became the ninth country in Africa to achieve the minimum 10 percent budgetary allocation to farming as prescribed in the 2003 Maputo Declaration on agriculture and food security in Africa. Songa noted that substantial amount of this money will be directed to biotechnology research.

“Lots of delegations from Kenya have gone to South Africa to learn about GMO and when they hear we still have food scarcity problems, they wonder what is wrong with us,” said David Nyameino, the chief executive officer of the Cereal Growers Association. “The technology is not a miracle for Kenya, but it will raise yields, help achieve food security and enable cereals farming to make business sense.”

Scientists said the debate in Kenya should focus on what the country will lose by not adopting GMO.

The Citizen

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