|Beth Mugo, Minister of Public Health: Photo courtesy of Nation Media Group|
When Hon. Beth Mugo announced the ban on importation of genetically modified (GM) foods, Kenya joined a throng of South African countries which have done the same in the recent past. Notable among these is Zambia which rejected 35,000 tonnes of food aid in 2002 suspected to be genetically modified. This was a bold move considering that 3 million Zambians were in dire need of food aid at the time. As expected, this sparked a heated debate on the pros and cons of GM food especially on its use as food aid. Caught in the middle of this debate were international NGOs which rely on donors for their stock of food aid and acceptance of this food aid by recipient governments in developing countries.
The United States is the largest donor of food aid. This is due to the direct tying of food aid to subsidized food grown locally in the US. It is requirement by US law that 75 % of US food aid is sourced, fortified, processed, and bagged in the US. Furthermore, it is also a requirement by law that 75 % of all food aid must be transported on US flagged vessels. Considering that the US has adopted the growing of GM foods, it is expected that a good percentage of food aid would be GM unless recipient governments request otherwise. It is also expected that should more developing countries reject GM food aid, local farmers in the US, food processors and US shippers would lose substantial revenues accrued from trade surrounding food aid. Perhaps this is the underlying reason behind the well funded Pro-GM advocacy in developing countries and in the EU by the US.
The scientific uncertainty on the effects of GM foods does not make decision making for recipient countries any much easier. This was the main reason behind Zambia’s rejection of both milled and non-milled GM foods in 2002 as is Kenya’s temporary banning of importation of GM foods until their safety is ascertained. How long this would take is unknown. FAO and WHO state that they are not aware of any verifiable scientific documentation on the adverse effects of GM foods on human health.
Knowing that 2.2 million Kenyans are on relief food, what are the options available for Kenya? Kenya can decide to do away with GM foods altogether. This might come at a cost such as giving up development credit tied to GM food (Zambia had to forego a US $ 50 million that was tied to purchase of GM commodities). However, bilateral trade with African countries might be enhanced (Zambia imported non GM maize from neighboring countries after rejecting the food aid). Secondly, Kenya can decide to import only milled GM foods. This would prevent cross breeding between GM foods and Kenyan crop varieties. However, the quantity of food aid might be substantially reduced and the possible risks of GM foods accommodated. Thirdly, Kenya can request food aid in form of cash transfers. This would give the country liberty to source food aid locally or a source of its choice. Lastly, Kenya can choose to implement the current Kenya Food Security and Nutrition Policy to its last letter. If it does so, it would be a long while before we hear debates on GM foods or food aid.