A newly-elected government provides a country with a rare opportunity for a fresh start, and President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nomination this week of Mr Felix Kiptarus Kosgey to become Kenya’s next Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries offers our nation a remarkable opening to make a hard push for food security.
Success, however, will require President Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, Mr Kosgey, and the rest of our new government to set aside the bad mistakes of the recent past and embrace biotechnology.
There’s every reason to hope that they will. At the launch of the Jubilee Coalition manifesto in February, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto promised to “put food and water on every Kenyan’s table”. At his inauguration, President Kenyatta reaffirmed that his government will fully implement the manifesto.
This is both a tall order and a worthy goal — and one of the surest ways to achieving it is by accepting the latest advances in agricultural biotechnology, recognising that they have become conventional practices in many countries and should become so here as well.
Everywhere farmers have had the chance, they have adopted genetically modified crops. Last year, more than 17 million farmers around the world planted more than 170 million hectares of GM crops, according to a new report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
This is an all-time high. Moreover, farmers in poor countries made it possible: For the first time, developing nations accounted for more than half of the world’s GM crop plantings.
Unfortunately, as much as Kenyan farmers have hailed the Green Revolution of the 20th century, they have not yet participated in this Gene Revolution of the 21st century.
Our scientists have made strides towards developing biotech crops that would flourish in our soil and climate, but a toxic mix of scientific illiteracy and political pressure has prevented the commercialisation of these promising plants.
To make matters worse, the previous government banned the importation of GM foods and ordered the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation to remove all GM foods from grocery stores.
This tragic decision came last November in the wake of a controversial French study that claimed to find a connection between GM food and tumours in rats.
The results were immediately widely debunked by renowned scientists from around the world. Yet the political activists whose personal ideology opposes agricultural biotechnology — many of them wealthy Europeans who don’t have to wonder about their next meal — managed to smear a vital tool for fighting hunger.
The government cannot move swiftly enough to overturn the previous government’s misbegotten ban on GM food. It may be the single most significant step they can take to improve our nation’s food security.
They should accept what respected organisations, ranging from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to Britain’s Royal Society, have said for a long time: GM food is safe to grow and eat. We have nothing to fear from it — and a great deal to gain.
While farmers in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States have jumped at the chance to take advantage of high-yielding GM crops, farmers in Kenya and its neighbours have been relegated to the side-lines.
Last year, Sudan became only the fourth African country to permit the planting of GM crops, following the leads of Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa.
The boost in farm productivity alone is enough to justify Kenya’s adoption of crop biotechnology, because it would help us feed a growing population. But the benefits would not stop there. Improved access to GM seeds would create jobs by supplying the raw materials for our textile industries.
Our leaders can show Africa a way to a better tomorrow — a future in which we enjoy true food security. After all, we elected this government on a platform of taking the country to the next level — through science and technology.
Mr Bor teaches Commerce at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret, and is the chairman of Chepkatet Farmers Co-operative Society (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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