06/10/2014 02:53 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2014

Kenya's GM Ban and the Future of GM Policy in Africa

At the moment, growing genetically modified (GM) crops -- those bred using modern transgenic methods rather than conventional ones -- is only legal in three African countries -- South Africa, Sudan, and Burkina Faso. By the end of the year, Kenya may join those ranks.

In January 2014, Kenya's Education, Science, and Technology Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi announced plans to legalize the import and commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops by the end of the year. Although resistance to GM crops is still strong in many parts of the world, Kenya is on the leading edge of African countries warming up to more GM drought-resistant, pest-resistant, and herbicide-resistant plants.

Except this actually isn't the first time Kenya is legalizing GM.

Five years ago, Kenya incited international controversy as it opened its doors to GM for the first time when then-President Mwai Kibaki signed the Biosafety Act of 2009. This law lay down important ground rules and frameworks for governing GM crop cultivation, and it also established the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to monitor and regulate potential human health hazards of GM crops. A highly contested move, no doubt, but still measured and intentional.

So why then did the Kibaki administration turn on its heel three years later and suddenly ban all GM crops?

It had a lot to do with one journal article. In September 2012, a study led by Gilles-Eric Séralini published in Food and Chemical Toxicology associated GM maize consumption with tumor growth in rats. Although the paper was retracted by the journal the following year for methodical blunders that rendered results inconclusive, anti-GM advocates brandished it as strong evidence for health hazards, confirming the worst fears of many sub-Saharan African leaders who were still on the fence.

Only two months after the study was first released, Kibaki signed into law a blanket ban that would prohibit the import, sale, distribution, or consumption of GM foods in Kenya. This sent out a shock wave of anxiety throughout sub-Saharan Africa, prompting President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria to postpone his country's plans to allow field testing of GM crops, which would have otherwise preceded legalizing commercialization.

So far, the scientific consensus holds that crops bred with transgenic methods do not pose a greater health risk than those bred with conventional methods, and, although controversial, this position has not yet shifted.

But the scientific integrity of individual studies like Séralini's is not what is most concerning here. This ban was severely detrimental to the process of rational policy-making in general. Without consulting any of its agricultural research institutions, the Kibaki administration bypassed the NBA -- whose sole purpose was to supervise and regulate the transfer, handling, and use of GM food products -- and single-handedly shut down GM imports. The short moral here is to resist "one-study syndrome," the dangerous practice of basing policy decisions on an insufficient and unreliable body of scientific information, in this case, the lone Séralini paper.

But incidents like these are primed to happen when unfounded fears about GM are ignited into a hasty policy when a single journal article resounds with those apprehensions and are not tempered by the knowledge of scientific authorities. Policies like this ban are not unusual, nor will they cease to occur again in Africa. A short moral is not enough.

A quickly executed blanket ban destroys nuance in the GM issue -- something that the international GM debate desperately needs -- and further confirms the canon that scientists and agriculturalists have been fighting: that all GM crops are the same, and that all of them are very dangerous.

Golden Rice, for example, is a vitamin-fortified rice variety which has been genetically modified to enhance nutritional value. The Golden Rice Project has been led by public sector organizations, does not receive support from private companies, and features royalty-free access to the patents and intellectual property of Syngenta, the biotech company partner. Golden rice in particular has not yet taken root in Africa but, as it is, faces enough challenges taking root in Southeast Asia, where field trials have been vandalized and destroyed by farmers led by environmental NGOs.

Or take WEMA, a drought-tolerant maize project whose name has been "smeared" by big ag company Monsanto's participation. Coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), this public-private partnership has developed resilient maize varieties and aims to make them accessible to farmers royalty-free through local African seed companies. Most don't know that Monsanto has donated its commercial drought-tolerance and insect-protection traits royalty-free.

Both of these examples feature GM plants and involve big ag companies. In a blanket ban like Kenya's, both too would be swept in under one big umbrella with cash crops, Monsanto's commercial Round-Up-Ready maize, and whatever other GM organisms inside or outside of African that strike fear into the hearts of environmental NGOs.

Food security and malnutrition are high-stakes problems. Sub-Saharan Africa claims the highest prevalence of malnutrition in the world, and undernourishment contributes to about a third of deaths in children under the age of five. Clinging to caricatured notions about GM agriculture is a dangerous move and costs hundreds of millions of lives.

With consequences like these, there can be no excuse for irrational, alarmist policy-making. If Kenya and other sub-Saharan African countries intend to eradicate malnutrition and food insecurity, they will have to seriously rethink their agricultural systems, which involves capitalizing on new forms of agricultural technology. And if they want to tap into the potential of GM crops, they will have to adhere to rational policy-making processes that leave no room for sloppy decisions based on whims or unfounded science.

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