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August 14, 2008

Kenyan agriculture minister takes on anti-biotechnology crusaders

Double-speak on bio-safety issues by some developed nations is blurring the vision for Kenya and other regional states in tackling escalating hunger and poverty levels.

Agriculture minister William Ruto said on August 13 that though African economies were mainly agro-based, their respective leadership had shied away from adopting new technologies such the genetically modified foods (GMOs) to uplift struggling production systems, because of misinformation.

“We see some people coming to our continent to an preach anti-biotechnology message while back at home their food is produced through the technology. This leaves many in a dilemma while suffering continues,” he told participants at a regional workshop in Nairobi, on development of a bio-safety communication strategy for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).

He claimed that most of the issues fronted by anti-biosafety crusaders lacked merit and urged African nations to consider biotechnology as a possible strategy of tackling low productivity.

“I believe the best way to remove poverty and food insecurity is to adopt the adequate technology. If there is no proof of harm from GMOs we should adopt them because they have a scientific backing,” said the minister.

Ruto said Kenya was already making strides towards embracing biotechnology in food production with the proposed legislation to handle bio-safety issues set to be re-introduced in Parliament in two months time.

“I’m confident that the legislation will deliver its goals because there is the necessary backing of science...we need to make farming profitable and food sufficient,” he said.

The Bio-safety Bill 2008 seeks to bring Kenya’s regulatory framework in line with the Caetagena Protocol on Bio-safety which has both signed and ratified. Its main objective is to ensure protection in safe transfer, handling and use of GMOs that may have adverse effects on the environment and establish a transparent review process.

The minister argued that such double-speak was also affecting African agriculture in the market front with developed nations issuing conflicting signals on key areas such as subsidies.

“We had the WTO talks collapse recently on grounds of double-speak on issues of subsidies. The developed nations preach against the subsidies but hand their producers such preferential treatment leaving our markets and products hard hit by competition,” he said.

The latest attempts to find a mid point for global trade under the WTO framework collapsed in Geneva late July amidst a fall out between the US and emerging Asian economies such as Indonesia, China and India over farming pacts. Among the key issues fronted at the talks by the African group was the removal of subsidies to cotton growers in the United States among other agricultural commodities.

The African bloc also demanded for redress on market access for non-agricultural products (Nama) arguing that there was need to resolve non-reciprocal preferences both in terms of product coverage and the implementation period. They also requested that products identified as vulnerable to preference erosion be excluded from sectorial initiatives.

Ruto however said they would not be cowed into rejecting new technology such as GMOs as long as there was scientific evidence against them.

“You cannot have a population in need of food yet choose to ignore biotechnology that would guarantee high productivity. The cost of GMO maize is about one-and-a half times cheaper than convectional maize,” he said.

Agriculture secretary Wilson Songa said lack of a proper communication strategies on bio-safety was largely to blame for the huge resistance among sections of the public. “What has lacked is the right information. We must involve all groups, we made mistakes in the past and we must not repeat them,” he told participants at the forum.

He said most nations including Uganda had already put in place legislation on bio-safety, hence the need to a regional approach to avoid disjointed trade arrangements. “The argument here is that once GMOs are produced in one unit it would spread to other markets and we must move with time so that there is uniformity,” he said.

In a new strategy, nations under the Comesa bloc envisage to have a unified approach on the dissemination of information on biotechnology to boost its uptake in the region.

Business Daily Africa

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