Kenya Lifts GM Ban

This week, the Government of Kenya lifted its bans on the production and import of genetically-modified crops (GMOs). As with any decision regarding GMOs, there has been intense controversy and debate surrounding both the political motivations, market implications, and potential health impact of opening up to these “designer” crops.

Here’s a quick rundown of the issue:

  • As of July 1, 2011, Kenyans can now import and produce GM crops with “written consent from the National Safety Authority.”
  • GMO imports will benefit tremendously from the maize import duty-holiday that is in effect until December
  • Cereal millers and government officials argue that lifting the GMO ban will help alleviate the current food crisis because GM maize is 30% cheaper.
  • Biotechnology researchers in Kenya argue that GM crops will improve the quality of Kenyan cereals and the production capacity of local farmers.
  • Anti-GMO groups argue that the safety of GMOs has not been scientifically proven
  • Small-scale farmers believe that the importation of cheap GM cereals will “kill us – the small scale farmer.”

GM Crops to Improve Food Security?

I am a big fan of GM foods, but only if the technology is being used to benefit small scale farmers. Kenya’s new policy is focused on increasing the availability of cheap grain imports to offset surging food prices. The new law favors imports in conjunction with the duty-holiday in place until December. However, the law also allows for the production of GM crops. This provision could benefit local farmers by enhancing their production output.

In the long run, opening up to GM foods could have mixed effects for Kenyans. On the one hand, cheap imports could displace small farmers who cannot compete with the artificially deflated market prices. Focusing on GM imports as a quick fix could in fact make the situation even worse. On the other hand, Kenyan farmers will have access to GM varieties that could increase their crop yields and overall capacity. In other regions, the introduction of improved varieties has improved the overall production capacity.

The Government of Kenya will have to handle the situation delicately – coupling its efforts to curb famine and to support local farmers.

Couldn’t the use of GM seeds lead to both a local and export-market backlash against Kenyan grains?

In 2008, Simon C. Kimenju and Hugo De Groote surveyed Kenyans at supermarkets, roadside shops, and posho mills. They found that shoppers generally had a positive attitude toward GM foods and were willing to even pay equal prices for GM maize. Some were even willing to pay more. While they did encounter some negative perceptions, they found that these were almost always linked to a lack of general and scientific knowledge about GMOs.

Rorbert Paarlberg’s research shows African countries like Kenya that embrace GM crops will face more challenges from their African counterparts than from European markets. Using data on trading trends, he found that most of the potential GM crops for Africa are currently being traded within the continent, rather than to outside markets like Europe or Asia.

Currently, Africa is working toward what has been dubbed a “grand market” or the Tripartite Free Trade Area which would integrate the existing Southern African Development Community (SADC), the East African Community (EAC), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Undoubtedly, GMOs will play a role in the debate over regional free trade integration. Up to now, only four African countries have endorsed GMOs – Kenya, South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Egypt. The TFTA could endorse a blanket ban on GMOs among its members, or take a more fluid approach.

In 2010, COMESA proposed that a governing body be set up to regulate and approve GM crops within the trading bloc. Those deemed safe for consumption would be approved for production and import within any COMESA state. However, the provision also allowed COMESA member states to place a blanket ban on GM crops if they chose to do so. It’s likely that the TFTA will take this sort of approach. Unfortunately, this means status-quo for GMOs for the time being. It also means that Kenya is likely to experience push back from regional trading partners regarding its decision to produce GM crops. GM farmers within Kenya will find limited external markets in Africa for the time being.

The bottom line…

In the short term, GM foods could help alleviate the steep prices for grains in Kenya. In the long term, Kenyan farmers could benefit from increased yields by using GM technology. However, Kenya is ahead of the curve in embracing GM crops. Farmers with increased yields are likely to face difficulties in accessing markets in countries that currently have a GM ban. In addition, the immediate influx of cheaper GM grain imports could impoverish thousands of small farmers who cannot compete with cheaper grain prices during the current drought. Later, continued import of these cheap grains could mean that farmers will be forced to embraced GM technologies in order to compete locally, while sacrificing their export market potential. Until African trade organizations unanimously embrace GM technology and allow African farmers to make use of recent advances in seed quality, countries that unilaterally embrace GMOs will continue to face the dilemma of short-term food needs versus prosperity and development.

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