Battle over gene-edited food heads to EA court

Anti-GMO activists demonstrating in Nairobi on December 8, 2016. Kenya now stands alone in the region as far as the importation and growing of genetically modified organisms is concerned. PHOTO | FILE | NMG. 

What you need to know:

  • Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights has dragged the Kenyan government to the East African Court of Justice asking it to issue an order stopping the cultivation and importation of GMOs in the entire region.
  • GMOs are products of genetic engineering, which is also known as genetic modification (GM) or modern biotechnology.

The Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Monica Musenero, is very guarded in her statements when asked about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). 
“They have pros and cons,” she says in an interview, adding that she’s an advocate of “balanced factual science.” 
She advises that the country develops the “capacity to sort out what’s good for you and what you don’t want now.” 

The “balanced knowledge-based development and use” that she favours has not made it abundantly clear what side of the argument Uganda is. 
Kenya picked its side three months ago when the William Ruto administration lifted a decades-long ban on importing GMOs.  
Kenya has grappled with a severe water shortage caused by four failed consecutive rainy seasons, amid one of the most punishing droughts the East African region has seen in four decades.

“Cabinet considered a broad array of proposals touching climate change adaptation, reducing Kenya’s reliance on rain-fed agriculture by increasing irrigation, planting of diverse,  and draught resistant crops, and the implementation of early warning and response mechanism that are activated at the very start of adverse situations rather than when the situations have escalated in disaster situations,” President Ruto noted in a statement. 
He added: “As part of the medium to long-term responses to the ongoing drought, and as a progressive step towards significantly redefining agriculture in Kenya by adopting crops that are resistant to pests and disease, the cabinet also considered various expert and technical reports an adoption of biotechnology; including reports of Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority, World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, United States of America’s Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority.”

By the stroke of a pen, Kenya had joined African countries, including Nigeria, that allowed the importation of GMOs on grounds of increasing agricultural produce in light of the increasing population. 
In 2001, Nigeria allowed GMOs like Bt Cotton, Bt Maize, and Ht Soybean, sparking off a debate around the safety of such kinds of foods. 
The same debate is being had in Uganda following President Ruto’s bold move. 
While the Ugandan government has chosen to keep a conspicuous silence, the civil society in the country has sought to have its voice heard. A local NGO decided to take the matter to the courts of law. The NGO in question will be joined by lawmakers who took leave to put together a Bill that speaks to GMOs.

Kenya sued 
Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights (CEFROHT) dragged the Kenyan government to the East African Court of Justice. It’s not only asking to issue an order stopping the cultivation and importation of GMOs in the entire region, but also asking to declare Kenya’s move of accepting GMOs as one that’s not in tandem with a plethora of articles under the treaty that establishes the East African Community.  
CEFROHT says the Ruto administration made the decision whimsically without consulting widely within the region. This, the organisation says, is in contravention of Article 6 of the treaty. 

GMOs, it proceeds to note, should be stopped because they apparently contaminate gardens, “violat[ing] articles 5 (3)(c), 114 (1)(a) and 111(1)(d) of the treaty establishing the East African Community.”     
The patent owners of GMO genes, according to CEFROHT, are monopolies of the production, distribution, and technology of GMO seeds. This, the organisation says, is dangerous as it will adversely affect poor smallholder farmers who CEFROHT says are the majority in Kenya and the rest of the East African countries.

Double standards 
It proceeds to note that Kenya has exhibited “double standards because it undertook to encourage the use and development of indigenous science and technology under Article 103 (1) of the treaty establishing the East African Community, but now it has introduced GMOs, which contravenes Article 103 of the same treaty.”   
GMOs, CEFRHOT says, eventually take away the small-scale farmers’ sovereignty over their seeds, food, and farms. Farmers, it notes with dismay, are required to pay royalties and user rights to multinational companies producing GMOs in terms of seed and food. This, it says, is inconsistent with Articles 6 (d) and 188 (h) of the  East African treaty. 

“GMOs take away the sanctity of heredity embedded in seed sovereignty. Seeds are fascinating objects as they link in the food chain and the very basis of the respondent’s people’s food supply as seeds carry tremendous material and symbolic importance as witnessed by ancient rituals,”  CEFRHOT notes.
The tone CEFRHOT has embodied mirrors that of the Tanzanian government. 
“We are not open to such GM technology,” Mr Hussein Bash, the country’s Agriculture minister, said last October. “Currently, issues related to biotechnology are being widely researched so that people understand its handling and control as far as data collection and analysis are concerned … such trials will only be allowed for academic purposes, which in turn would help the country and its people to have a broad understanding of genetically modified varieties, especially the benefits and impact on the environment.”

Tanzanian dead bat
In 2003, Tanzania joined Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda in ratifying the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB). 
The protocol began in 2000 and recognises the benefits of biotechnology and advocates for the safe management of biotechnology to ensure its safety for human health and the environment in general. 
Article 19.3 of the CPB talks about the handling of biotechnology and distribution of its benefits.

It states thus: “The parties shall consider the need for and modalities of a protocol setting out appropriate procedures, including, in particular, advance informed agreement, in the field of the safe transfer, handling, and use of any living modified organism resulting from biotechnology that may have an adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.”  
The downside of this is that in Tanzania, legislation regarding GM technology and products, as well as monitoring and control of their residues, is not adequately enforced. The insufficiency led to three reported cases of GM products being found in the market in 2010.  

Rwanda’s reaction to Kenya’s GMO has been to implore East Africa’s biggest economy to be transparent. 
“In this regard, testing is not a very important aspect as countries are requested, under the Cartagena Protocol, to which both Kenya and Rwanda are signatories, to be transparent and to share information on the transboundary movement of GMO. Both countries have competent authorities that have the mandate to implement provisions of the protocol,” the Rwanda Inspectorate, Competition and Consumer Protection Authority (RICA) said, adding, “We believe that this particular trade will be handled through the existing regulatory framework and through the existing good collaboration between the two parties.” 

In Uganda, President Museveni has twice rejected the Bill that would have regulated how GMOs work in Uganda. 
“The prime minister’s office took the lead role in that Bill. It’s not with my ministry and it’s still in the Cabinet,” Dr Musenero said. “We shall have to wait until Cabinet introduces the Bill in Parliament.” 

‘We shall defeat them’
While the government is still dilly-dallying, lawmakers led by Mr James Nsaba Buturo (Bufumbira East) have moved to introduce a Bill that would have the effect of outrightly banning GMOs.    
“We will be making a very strong case in Parliament when the time comes. We know it is going to be a big fight. Those people will use a lot of money, but we believe that—with God on our side—we shall defeat them,” Mr Buturo told Saturday Monitor, adding, “GMOs are a disaster. Eminent scientists have said there are no benefits of GMOs. Fifty African countries out of 54 have said no to GMOs. So, those who are rushing us to accept them have their agenda.” 

Mr Emmanuel Otaala, the West Budama County lawmaker, is co-sponsoring the anti-GMO Bill. He says: “Why should we, Africans, who have no better regulatory mechanism, be the first to rush to introduce GMO crops? We have several risks: environmental and health risks - containment challenges are overwhelming. You can’t just decide on one area where to grow GMOs and another where they will grow GMOs. We need biodiversity conservation, but that will be affected if we introduce GMOs.” 
Asked if she would support the anti-GMO Bill, Dr Musenero was noncommittal. “I have not seen the contents of the Bill. When they present their Bill, I will listen and make an informed decision.”

Whilst GMO advocates insist that they are fighting famine, those who are opposed to them aren’t buying that.  
“GMOs are not the magic bullet for food security and malnutrition. The world produces more than sufficient grain and other foodstuffs for all people to enjoy a healthy diet. People get hungry because they lack money to buy the food that is available, or land and other productive resources to grow it themselves,” CEFRHOT noted in its petition. 
“This shows that increased availability of food at the global level doesn’t necessarily translate into increased food security at the national household level.”

What are GMOs?
GMOs are products of genetic engineering, which is also known as genetic modification (GM) or modern biotechnology. This technology allows scientists to create plants, animals, and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that is not possible via traditional or natural processes.