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June 27, 2011

Kenya: Maize shortage plays into hands of GMO advocates

by George Omondi

To a casual observer, Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta successfully deflated pressure that was mounting on the government to lower food prices when he scrapped duty on maize imports two weeks ago.

To government policy mandarins, the duty free directive has taken away the heat to lower food prices from the country’s top executives and shifted it to private food processors — to procure cheap maize, mill it efficiently, and give Kenyans cheaper flour.

Looked at critically, however, the duty free maize programme has also reopened a fresh battlefront in the never ending face-off between proponents of organic agriculture and backers of the multibillion-shilling global genetic engineering industry.

“The duty free market that is opening in Kenya is regarded in South Africa as new hope for the genetically modified maize after the country tried unsuccessfully to change laws to allow for use of her surplus production to generate biofuel,” said Ms Haidee Swanby, an official at the African Centre for Biosafety, a South African based NGO that advocates for organic agriculture.

In South Africa, the GM technology has helped raise maize production to six million tonnes in 2010, leading to a glut that has caused significant drop in prices, Ms Swanby said...

Lately, the Cereals Millers Association has stoked the old flame over GM foods when its chairman, Mr Diamond Lalji, hinted to the media that local millers planned to import GM maize if given a nod by the recently established Biosafety Authority.

A green light to import GM maize could see the country diversify its maize source beyond the traditional southern African states of Malawi, Zambia, and South Africa to include the US and Southern American states.

The anti-GM campaigners said Kenya, like most African countries, does not have the capacity to test GM materials and has to rely on facilities of South Africa and Zambia.

“Until recently, Kenyan authorities were not even asking for a certificate of GMO declaration from importers,” says Ms Anne Maina, an advocacy coordinator at the Thika based African Biodiversity Network.

“When GM crops were first introduced in the US in 1996, there were fantastic promises of new technology that would change the face of agriculture — drought resistance, saline resistance, improved nutrition and more,” said Ms Swanby, adding that results have not borne out most of these claims.

A diplomatic cable released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks recently revealed that the US...was the main force behind the enactment of Kenya’s Biosafety Law. The cable, sent to the American Secretary of State in March 2009 by former US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, said the American government put pressure on Kenya to pass the law.

Critics of the law says it waters down powers of the biosafety authority, stripping it of independence from political manipulation and rendering it toothless against rich US multinationals that promote GM technology in Africa.

“Most conspicuously, this Act fails to clarify who has the responsibility to pay for the risk assessment of GMOs to be introduced or consumed in Kenya,” said Ms Maina.

Under a USAid loan, Kenya has since built a $12 million biosafety facility at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari). The country has been undertaking experiments in the production of biotechnology cotton. This massive investment is yet to change the attitude towards GM technology, with civil society groups still vowing to fight the technology.

“We do not believe that the top-down technological solutions will solve the many challenges that Kenyan farmers face and therefore demand government protection of integrity of agro-ecological practices and local seed varieties by banning GMOs,” said Ms Maina.

full article...Business Daily Africa

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