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June 06, 2008

GM crops will enslave African farmers and intensify hunger

by Gathuru Mburu*

The news of looming hunger in Kenya is worrying, with a section of Kenyan society alrady experiencing it.

Recurrent hunger has now become an annual ritual in Kenya, and this is not fair to ourselves as a nation, for we have everything it takes to be sustainably food secure. This recurrent hunger is of our own making.

We are faced with a more profound problem than we are seeing here. As a nation, we have accepted the global notion that maize security is synonymous with food security, and that when there is no maize there is food insecurity. At the same time, the diversity of indigenous food crops available in Kenya is under threat of extinction because we have made up our minds that anything indigenous is backward.

As farmers, we have space for planting maize and other exotic crops. Tragically, we have little or no space for yams, arrowroots, sweet potatoes, cassava, pumpkins, millet, sorghum and a host of other nutritious indigenous vegetables and fruits. These crops disappeared a long time ago from our small farms, where we plant maize season in and season out.

As a country, we have failed to take advantage of local biodiversity and the diversity of climatic conditions that support it. We have allowed indigenous floral and fauna to disappear or reduce to near unviable populations as we clear the land for exotic and cash crop farming.

We are in addition faced with an even bigger problem — that of climate change. It is now evident that our country is warming up and seasons are no longer accurately predictable. Our small scale farming system has been thrown into disarray as it rains when we are expecting a dry spell and vice versa. Farmers are continually being caught unprepared by changing weather patterns.

What is worse, while some indigenous foods are known to be bridging crops that assure food security in times of adverse weather, we are not planting these in sustainable quantities. Maize does not have this capacity and quickly withers when subjected to a short period of water stress.

Oour rivers' water volumes are declining with astonishing rapidity, thanks to our equally astonishing zeal to deforest the very water catchment areas that replenish our rivers, and a misguided passion to plant eucalyptus trees, which extract large quantities of water from soils, leaving them dry. In the face of this threat, little if anything is being done to respond to the visible impacts of climate change. We are yet to link climate change to loss of biodiversity and loss of livelihoods.

Until we make this connection and take appropriate action, we will continue facing hunger and will continue begging for food every other year.

Our soils are now dead after being fed with tonnes of chemical fertilisers and sprays for decades. Our farming continues to be dominated by high-external input agriculture, but the farmers do not get enough returns from the same farms to buy these inputs. Our farmers rarely participate in setting prices for their produce while inputs, including seeds, come with fixed prices. It is easy to create demand for farm inputs, but it’s difficult to create a demand for farm produce. When it comes to farmers, the law of supply and demand applies to the letter.

This lopsided agri-business is worsening the hunger situation in Kenya. Honestly, fertilisers and chemical sprays are not the answer to our food problems.

The maize seeds that we rely on so much are graduating from hybrids to genetically modified seeds, which are controlled by multinational companies. Traditionally, the sociology of seeds required that neighbours share seeds within a community. The values of sharing and reciprocity in seed management and food security were essential to ensuring that all members of the community had seeds and food. Yet these values have been trashed by this science of genetic engineering.

Faced with such a threat, our small scale farmers have a responsibility to rediscover their indigenous foods to secure their families and local economies. There exists a pool of local knowledge about indigenous seeds among local elders. With such a large diversity of communities and seeds in Kenya, we should not be vulnerable to hunger year in year out. We should make our indigenous food biodiversity the benchmark for our food security and our food sovereignty.

Agricultural research in Kenya has fallen. Annual budgetary allocations are dishearteningly minimal. Agricultural research institutions respond to research proposals from whichever source has money irrespective of ethical/legal considerations. Our national agricultural research institution, KARI, has been doing research on genetically modified organisms in the full knowledge that Kenya has no biosafety law, which is a requirement of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

While trying to remain relevant at an international level, such institutions are increasingly becoming irrelevant nationally. Externally sanctioned research always inclines towards the funders’ agenda, at the expense of Kenyan farmers.

Since the 1990s, when Kenya’s agricultural extension budget was drastically reduced, farmers have been at the mercy of agri-business. Farm produce has declined significantly and the soils have been depleted by increased use of chemical fertilisers and sprays. Even when extension services existed, these concentrated more on technical advice than on the social and attitudinal liberation of the farmers’ minds.

Kenyans still regard anything exotic as superior to indigenous materials. Our extension services crystallised this self-defeating notion and the trend continues to date, with an over-emphasis on exotic seeds. There is still no talk from government quarters of how farmers can use local knowledge of local biodiversity to improve their livelihoods.

There is minimal research happening on indigenous food biodiversity and our extension officers miss this knowledge. “Scienticising” our indigenous knowledge is the basis for endogenous development, which is what Kenya needs now to liberate our agriculture from the grip of profiteering multinationals.

Food production is now faced with another agribusiness threat called agro-fuels. With global fossil fuel reserves declining at an alarming rate, and on the false premise that agro-fuels will reduce climate change, Kenya is now being wooed into agro-fuel production. Investors are coming in and the government has set up a committee to explore opportunities for Kenya in this newly found, purportedly quick-money and climate ameliorating endeavour.

Huge tracts of virgin land, especially in the drier eastern regions of Kenya, are the target for the diesel-guzzling bulldozers of agro-fuel investors. Kenya is fast buying into this climate amelioration falsehood, which is transforming cropland into agro-fuel plantations in other countries, reducing farm produce and aggravating the hunger situation. Yet we are all too eager to embrace this hunger-producing investment.

Since independence, successive governments have failed to lay strong foundations for Kenya’s development, whose key pillar is food sufficiency and food sovereignty. Kenyans need enough food produced through a system of production that liberates rather than enslaves them. There can be no food sufficiency without food sovereignty, which is a continuum starting at seed acquisition, planting and management right through to harvesting and post-harvest handling.

Today, our food production is not sovereign at all. There are no options left for farmers who want to grow safe food. Our agriculture has been developed on high external inputs that are not locally available. With prices of these inputs sky-rocketing, Kenya has no option but to explore, sooner rather than later, farmer-friendly, ecological and biodiversity-based farming techniques that provide safe and affordable food.

At policy level, our seed laws discriminate against community knowledge and ownership of seeds. As a nation, we have perfected the art of legalising discrimination against communities by recognising individual innovations and knowledge and not what is within the communal realm. Indigenous seeds are communal and the knowledge about them is communally held.

Kenya requires legal tools that recognise and protect this communal phenomenon so that we can support recuperation and sharing of indigenous knowledge of seeds to cushion ourselves from recurrent hunger.
Oour leadership must resist being induced into placing our national hopes on maize, genetically modified seeds, fertilisers, chemical sprays and agro-fuels. We must diversify, but in the right manner! We must turn to what is available locally to revitalise our dead soils and use local seeds. We must recognize the space for indigenous knowledge in creating local resilience against the climate challenge.

Our institutions of research and higher learning must be reclaimed to provide the much needed leadership in research for endogenous development, with support from the government through increased budgetary allocations for research.

Our extension education must be improved to enable extension officers to assist farmers to come down from their delusional comfort zones of “exotic is progress, indigenous is backward.” We must strongly hold to what is good of our cultures and improve it through community-led research in conjunction with our research institutions and universities.

We must decolonise our minds, 45 years after political independence, and realise that we have a country to protect. By failing to take charge of our food agenda we are offering ourselves to be
recolonised. For there is no freedom in hunger — we will dance to the tune of those who feed us.

*Gathuru Mburu is director of the Institute for Culture and Ecology based in Thika near Nairobi

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