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February 19, 2009

Kenya approves gene-modified crops

by David Njagi

Kenya has become the fourth African country to allow the production and use of genetically modified (GM) crops after president Mwai Kibaki signed off on parliament's approval of new biosafety legislation on 13 February 2009.

The Biosafety Bill 2008 sees the East African nation join Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa as African nations which permit genetically modified farming, following years of fine-tuning to the proposed regulations and mechanisms to monitor and regulate GM technology, and protect farmers and consumers (see Kenya prepares to approve biosafety gislation).

A National Biosafety Authority will now be created, under the National Council for Science and Technology, to implement the legislation and to follow priorities as stated in the National Biotechnology Development Policy passed in 2006, said Margaret Karembu, director of the Kenya-based African centre of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

She adds that the new legislation will fast-track the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project to develop drought-resistant maize, which had stalled due to the lack of a legislative framework.

Charles Watoro, director of Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) says a lot of agricultural research has been delayed due to several postponements in passing the legislation. The new law will allow open field trials in several locations, removing previous restrictions and speeding up agricultural improvements, he says. "But we need implementation of this law very fast," he adds.

Watoro says KARI researchers are working on cotton, maize, cassava, sweet potatoes and sorghum genetically modified to resist common pests.

Meanwhile, an international survey of 13 years of genetically modified agriculture up until 2008, released in Nairobi on 11 February by ISAAA, says there is substantial evidence that crops genetically modified to withstand drought, salt, insects and diseases are safe for human consumption.

ISAAA founder Clive James said at a press conference in Nairobi that biotechnology delivers food that is as safe as those produced through conventional agriculture. "This technology is regulated more heavily than any other," he said.

James applauded the ratification of the Biosafety Bill by the Kenyan president, saying the process indicated mature leadership responding to the food crisis, which has been declared a national disaster. He added that ISAAA is interested in helping developing countries like Kenya with the decision-making process but that ultimately it is up to the individual countries to make decisions on biotechnology.

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