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April 02, 2008

Kenya bans sale of GMO-containing seed maize from South Africa

The government has suspended the sale of a maize seed variety from South Africa that is suspected of being contaminated with a genetically modified material called MON810 that originated in the USA.

The ban will remain in place until the government completes independent tests, Dr Chagema Kedera, the director of the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, said.

Dr Kedera also expressed doubt on the authenticity of the test results released by a foreign specialised laboratory and the reliability of the methods used by the organisation that claims to have identified the contentious material. “The presented test results certificate was not signed, hence raised the issue of authenticity,” said Dr Kedera.

But Dr Kedera’s assertion has attracted criticism from Greenpeace International, which made available to the Sunday Nation a copy of the signed certificate. Bearing the signature of Eurofins’ laboratory manager, Dr Castor Menendez, the certificate 35353-FR0760746-1 was signed on December 27 last year.

Eurofins GeneScan is a commercial laboratory involved in testing for genetically modified organisms, with a presence in 29 countries. Its clientele includes governments, multinational food producers and retailers.

Some Greenpeace officials participated in the sampling of the maize seeds under question and also facilitated their testing in Eurofins GeneScan in October last year. “We participated, together with Kenyan NGOs, in the sampling, testing and shipping of the material, and we supported the testing financially,” said Jan van Aken, an official with Greenpeace’s Sustainable Agriculture Campaign. He added that one Greenpeace biologist was present during all sampling, grinding, testing, decontamination and shipping procedures.

“We bought commercial seed lots of 0.5 to 2 kilogrammes from commercial shops in Kenya in October 2007,” Mr Aken said, adding that the seeds were bought in Eldoret between October 17 and 19 last year.

Earlier, Dr Daniel Maingi, a scientist affiliated to the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) had told the Sunday Nation: “Our tests were completely random. Samples were all taken from small stores that any farmer would buy from.”

He said that together with Greenpeace officials, KBioC had collected a total of 43 samples, which “were tested on the spot with a quick test kit”. It was after this rapid tests that 19 of the samples were identified as “probable positives (and) were shipped to Europe for further molecular analysis”.

The Sunday Nation can also report that the procedure used in the rapid testing had involved inspecting the bags containing the sampled seeds and photographing them before they were opened. Mr Aken says that later, about 300 kernels were isolated and ground using a blender and the flour placed into plastic bags and labelled with the seed variety name and number.

According to Mr Aken, the seeds were then tested for the presence of Bacillus thurigienis (Bt) protein or a roundup-ready product identified as CP4EPSPS. None of the quick tests gave a definitive positive result.

Bt is a toxin-emitting bacteria that is able to kill pests, while roundup is a weed-killing chemical owned by Monsanto, a US-based company. Monsanto are also the producers of MON810.
Mr Aken says that when he returned to Germany where he lives, he sent some maize seeds for preliminary analysis to Eurofins Genescan in Freiburg, Germany.

The maize seed samples were tested and the variety PHB 30V53 tested positive for MON810 while all the other samples had negative test results. Mr Aken has since faxed the signed certificate from Eurofins to the Sunday Nation.

With a presence in 40 countries, Greenpeace International is involved in campaigns for global peace and environmental conservation. Among its key campaigns has been the total rejection of genetically engineered organisms, protection of biodiversity and responsible farming.

Following the complaint by KBioC, Kephis has issued “a Stop Sale Order” on Pioneer PHB30V53. Dr Kedera says the suspension will only be lifted “after conclusive negative tests results.” He said Kephi has already tested 14 samples of Pioneer Variety PHB30V53 that were sampled from various parts of the country and that “none has been found to be positive.”

But this contention was challenged by Aken who asked Kephis to make public its testing procedure and wondered whether Kenya has the specialized laboratory (PCR lab) for such advanced tests. “We need to know their sample and testing procedure… if they used Elisa sticks, it is clear that they (are likely to get) negative (results), because the contamination is so low.”

According to Dr Kedera, the alleged 0.1 percent contamination level of MON 810 in the Pioneer variety PHB30V53 implies “low-level presence” of the offending material. “Countries all over the world acknowledge that low-level presence is expected and that is what is termed as adventitious (or unintended) presence.”

However Aken would hear none of this. “KEPHIS’ claim that low level contamination is common everywhere is plain wrong. In Europe, even for food (sic) there is a zero tolerance for unapproved varieties, and the rules for commercial seeds are even stricter.”

The danger posed by GMO contamination in Kenya is that once it takes place it will be with us forever. “Once released in the environment, it will establish its presence in the Kenyan maize once and forever” said Aken who added that the risks for the environment are potentially high. This is because the poison-emitting (or toxin-emitting) bacteria injected ostensibly to arm the seed with inbuilt ability of killing pests usually targets useful insects and other organisms.

Loaded in the contentious MON810 is a bacterium that also acts as an insecticide. Experts say that MON810 might be restricted to the soil for some time. But if such contamination is not contained, there is a risk that the MON810 will eventually be conveyed from the soil to the country’s rivers and other ecosystems by hundreds of billions of pollen flown from the contaminated maize by wind.

The matter came into media spotlight after a group of 45 NGOs and farmers’ groups operating under the auspices of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition released results of tests undertaken by Eurofins GeneScan showing that the maize variety in question (PHB30V53) is contaminated with a genetically modified material, MON810.

The latter is a gene artificially engineered by Monsanto to enable maize resist the corn borer pests. It was first approved in the US in 1995. Monsanto is a leading US-based biotechnology company. Covered by our sister paper, Sunday Nation, the test results showed that one of the sampled seeds collected from agrovet shops in Eldoret town was contaminated with traces of MON810.

The controversy surrounding genetic modification became a religious issue recently after the Catholic Church declared such scientific adventurism a “mortal Sin.” In Kenya, a biosafety law that did not go through parliament last year had addressed the matter of contamination of traditional or conventional seeds.

Daily Nation

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