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May 18, 2011

Kenyan GMO farming increases, bypasses legal loopholes

by David Njagi

Farming with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is becoming more widespread in Kenya due the promotion of biotechnology through clever schemes, exacerbated by the lack of a legal framework for the commercialisation of these controversial products.

The Kilimo Salama (Safe Farming) insurance scheme not only compensates farmers for losses incurred due to prolonged drought but also for destruction by excessive rains, according to Rose Goslinga, insurance coordinator at the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

The Syngenta Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation attached to the Syngenta Company that researches and produces GM seeds. The foundation is involved in the "Safe Biotechnology Management" (SABIMA) project aimed at promoting GM technology among small-scale farmers in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Uganda and Malawi.

Goslinga explains the scheme in Kenya as follows: farmers that suffer crop losses are compensated through seed payouts. Initially, they purchase eight kg of seeds, which is the standardised measure for sowing one acre piece of land. The stockist issues the farmer with a code.

The farmer then sends the code to a fixed-line number through the mobile phone short messages service (SMS), which is then picked and registered at the UAP Insurance Company and the Sygenta Foundation databases.

Every crop season is monitored by a weather station fitted with solar technology to inform the insurance company of impending crop failure. Data is then processed to determine the compensation range, she says.

"If there has been crop failure, each farmer is informed through SMS about the payouts," says Goslinga. "The automated weather stations keep the costs down by avoiding the need for expensive field visits to farms to ascertain risk and loss. This makes the insurance feasible both for the farmer and the insurance company."

So far 12,000 Kenyan farmers have been enrolled in the scheme and, according to the Syngenta Foundation’s executive director, Marco Ferroni, some 50,000 others are expected to join.

"This initiative has grown from a small pilot programme in 2009 to become the largest insurance programme in Africa and the first to use mobile phone technology to speed up access and payouts to rural farmers," says Ferroni.

The Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) regards the scheme as part of seed-manufacturing multinational companies’ renewed appetite to use Kenya as a testing ground for GMOs by offering seeds to farmers.

Wanjiru Kamau, KBioC spokesperson, acknowledges that it is a noble idea to offer insurance to farmers who continually face crop failure but fidgets when she hears Syngenta is one of the organisations behind it.

"We doubt if it is in the interest of Kenyans because Syngenta is one of the leading multinational companies that manufacture GM seeds," observes Kamau. "Pro-biotechnology groups resourced by seed-manufacturing multinationals are exerting a lot of pressure on Kenya’s policymakers to commercialise GMOs."

GM technology has made inroads into agriculture in Kenya despite the legal framework not being in place yet.

As an example, the Bt cotton variety has been tested but Roy Mugiira, acting chief executive of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), says his agency cannot yet sanction its release because regulations on commercialisation of GMOs have not been finalised.

According to Mugiira, three sets of regulations on contained use, environmental protection and export and import transit have been drafted and have to be scrutinised further before approval.

But an investigation by KBioC found that a seed variety had been planted by farmers in the Rift Valley region despite confirmation that it contained a GM strain. This, according to KBioC, happened before President Mwai Kibaki had assented to the Biosafety Act in February 2009.

"We suspected that a lot of GM seed, particularly for maize, was being imported from South Africa either as contaminated maize or plain GMOs," recalls Kamau. "We went to the key maize-growing regions and did random sampling. We bought the seed and found it was laced with GM strains."

After submitting the evidence to the agency in charge of seed imports, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS), it emerged that there was no certificate of clearance to prove that the seeds were not GMOs.

"KEPHIS went public and denied the allegations but we knew from our networks in South Africa that the agency had not demanded a certificate which would have shown that the import was indeed GM maize seeds," says Kamau.

"So even if Kenya has not commercialised GMOs, it is likely that farmers are planting GM seed without their knowledge," says Kamau.

While GMO proponents deny that GM crops may already be growing on hundreds of Kenya’s small-scale farms, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) in Nairobi, Dr. Margaret Karembu, predicts that 10 African countries will have adopted the technology before 2015. ISAAA promotes the use of GM by poor farmers. (END)


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