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October 16, 2012

As Kenya officially accepts GM technology, anti-GM activists shift focus to mandatory labeling

Kenya made big headlines in mid 2011 when the the government made it legal to import gene-modified maize. Many were surprised by the development but shouldn't have been. It was the culmination of several years of behind the scenes work at several levels to bring Kenya into the GM fold. In the next few years it is expected that the local cultivation of a number of GM crops, euphemistically said to be undergoing 'trials' for the last few years, will also be legalized.

This is a done deal from which there is no going back, but that doesn't mean that all Kenyans are happy about it. The legalization of GM maize imports was a stunning repudiation of the arguments of anti-GM activists. Having lost the battle to keep GM food and cultivation out, they have now moved their tactics to trying to push for mandatory labeling of GM food, the idea being that consumers can make an informed choice about what they consume. It is questionable whether any significant proportion of consumers in most countries worry about reading the ingredients-list on food they buy, but the anti-GM people can't be seen to have totally surrendered the fight. Besides, full disclosure of the contents of food sold to the public sounds like a perfectly reasonable enough demand, although the GM foods lobby in countries like the U.S. has been fiercely against such measures.     

An official of the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) has recently poked holes in the argument that the great East African drought and subsequent maize crisis in Kenya is what partly spurred the legalization of previously banned imports of GM maize.

Ann Maina asks why GM maize imports were allowed when Kenyan farmers in the country's maize surplus areas were not able to find markets for their crop during the national shortage of 2011. She also says the price of the imported GM maize was much higher than that of then locally available non-GM maize.

Maina's implication is that the the decision to allow imports of GM maize into Kenya had nothing to do with maize security concerns.

 In maize-dependent countries, the importation of this staple crop is often a fraught, controversial exercise often plagued with accusations of a long line of politically connected middle-men all wanting a piece of the action. In many countries, the longer the importation chain, the more opportunities for the many levels of middle-men to profit (and profiteer) from the process.

Maina also points out what she says are other irregularities about the GM maize importation decision and the process.

Writes Maina, 'In the US now, there is a big push to label GM foods and Kenya is also in the process of doing so. It is fundamental that we ensure our population have a right to choose the kind of food they want to eat. It is thus important that Kenya be not used as a dumping ground or human testing ground for GM varieties that have been rejected elsewhere.'

All these arguments are coming rather late in Kenya. For better or for worse, the local and international political and commercial forces allied together to put Kenya firmly in the GM camp have arguably won a victory that the anti-GM activists can do very little about now. It will be interesting to see if the calls for GM food labeling in Kenya make much headway, and if so, if they will make much difference to consumers.

African Agriculture 

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