Dialogue is key in improving public perceptions on genetically modified (GM) crops. This emerged during Kenya’s first national dialogue on GM crops held on 24th April 2019 at the University of Nairobi. The dialogue, bringing together a broad range of stakeholders and members of the public, became a trending topic (#MakeScienceCount) with Kenyans appreciating the need to move away from debates to dialogue on adoption of biotech crops.

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Kenya’s Agricultural Research Principal Secretary Prof. Hamadi Boga welcomed the dialogue and affirmed the Government’s commitment to support sober and objective discourse on modern agricultural technologies. He, however, cautioned against nullifying a scientific fact based on social, political, ethical or religious beliefs.

Prof. Boga hinted that the Government is seriously exploring deployment of agricultural biotechnology as a sustainable option to address famine in regions prone to perennial drought. “Drought tolerant crops are an option for some of these communities so that they are not tied to relief food for the rest of their lives,” he said. He also exuded confidence with the country’s biotech research and regulatory capacity to safely apply genetic engineering tools in agriculture. “Kenya has a biotechnology policy approved in 2006 and a Biosafety Act passed in 2009. These policies and regulations have borrowed from the best international standards,” said the PS.

The dialogue also sought to allay fears that GM crops will create a dependency cycle among farmers. A section of the public was worried that Bt cotton seeds cannot be replanted thus being unsustainable for smallholder farmers. In response, Dr. Martin Mwirigi, a research scientist at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization  informed Kenyans that “since Bt cotton seeds are hybrid, and just like any other hybrid seeds, we do not recommend replanting them season after season because the vigour will be lost and productivity will decline.”

Farmers urged the Government to approve Bt cotton for commercial planting saying they have recorded big losses with conventional cotton due to its susceptibility to African bollworm. Daniel Magondu, chairman of the Society for Biotech Farmers of Kenya (SOBIFAK) said farmers have been “waiting for GM cotton and maize like yesterday.”

The dialogue, organized under the auspices of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB-Kenya), was a collaborative effort between KALRO, National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, the National Biosafety Authority and Kenya Universities Biotechnology Consortium. It is part of a national program aimed at promoting public awareness on agricultural biotechnology as the country makes significant strides towards commercialization of GM crops.

For more information, contact Dr. Margaret Karembu at mkarembu@isaaa.org.