By Gerald Masila

A month ago, the Kenyan Government through a Cabinet decision lifted a decade-long ban on importation and utilization of genetically modified (GM) foods in the country. The Government had placed a ban on importation of GM maize following a controversial study that had raised safety concerns on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The study was later debunked by studies from reputable health and biosafety experts.

The decision to vacate the ban forms part of sweeping policy interventions to address the unprecedented food crisis, and ease access to high yielding climate-smart seeds. More than four million Kenyans – close to ten percent (10%) of the country’s population – face an acute food shortage. The livestock sub-sector has not been spared either. Shortage of animal feeds has rapidly raised the cost of livestock production forcing most farmers to downsize their production or abandon this farming altogether.

The lifting of the ban has been met with polarized debate with anti-technology advocates vigorously protesting the move. However, it should not be lost that the country has always been ready to adopt and use GMOs. Kenya has a robust biosafety framework whose emblem is a fully-efficient National Biosafety Authority. Prior to the lifting of the ban, the country had already commercialized Bt cotton with farmers in cotton growing regions reaping bumper harvests from the crop.

The polarized debate on GMOs is fodder for mis-and-disinformation about biotech crops. GM crops significantly contribute towards addressing the effects of climate change. More than 70 countries have adopted biotech crops and consequently recorded impressive returns including improved food and nutrition security, increased health and environmental benefits and improved livelihoods for farmers.

The economics of modern biotechnology in agriculture presents a fascinating picture of why technology is the engine that drives prosperity. To understand the economic importance of modern biotech-derived crops (or GM crops), I will draw a comparative analysis of agri-production between Kenya and the United States. The US is a leading cultivator of GM crops with over 95 percent adoption, and has prioritized market access for agri-biotech products. Maize is the most cultivated biotech crop covering close to half of the country’s biotech area. This has positioned the country as one of the leading producers of maize globally.

A farmer in the US gets approximately 15 tons of maize per hectare. In Kenya, an average farmer harvests about four tons per hectare. The cost of production in the US is $146 per ton. Contrastingly, its costs over $370 to produce a ton of this crop in Kenya. A maize farmer in America makes a gross margin of approximately $1,061 whereas a Kenyan farmer shockingly records a loss of up to $362 a hectare! Kenyan farmers’ unending dependence on other sources for a living attests to this stark reality. In a nutshell, a US farmer is 400% more productive than a Kenyan farmer. 

But the million dollar question is why are Kenyan farmers unproductive? I examine the leading factors responsible for this situation.

At Kenya’s independence in 1963, the country’s population was 8.9 million people. By 1970, the population was 11 million, 23.7 million by 1990, 42 million by 2010 and more than 55 million by 2021. This means in 58 years, Kenyan population has increased six-fold. Ceteris paribus, the country’s population is projected to hit 67 million by 2030. Sadly, the area under agricultural production in the country has constantly been declining as the population soars.

The rising population has caused socio-economic disruptions with challenges such as unemployment and rising rural poverty fuelling rural-urban migration thus increased urbanization. This, in effect, has led to conversion of prime agricultural land into giant housing structures inspired by the thriving real estate sub-sector. The continued resizing of arable land, coupled with poor farming practices, has drastically plummeted production. 

Adverse effects of climatic conditions – such as drought and increased incidences of crop pests and diseases – has exacerbated the situation. Now, Kenya is facing the worst food and feed crisis in decades. Two key factors – our monumental failure to utilize the finite land resource and indecision to timely adopt modern agri-biotech – are to blame for the worsening food insecurity.

The Government has expended lots of financial resources to import food from other countries that have already embraced modern technologies in agriculture. The cost of importing wheat, for example, has quintupled from $91 million in 2000 to $458 million in 2020. In 2000, the country imported rice worth $25.8 million. This cost has seen risen almost tenfold to $247 worth of imported rice. Palm oil import cost has moved from $87 million in 2000 to $830 million in 2020.

A major paradigm shift towards innovations is needed to effectively address this runaway food and feed crisis. We must innovate and embrace technologies at all levels of production. Adoption of modern biotechnology is not a matter of choice per se; it is a matter of survival. Seed technologies have evolved over time and proven a game-changer in developing high-yielding climate smart crops.

Worth our collective attention and action are public concerns about GMOs. The public and other players want to understand GM technologies – what they are, how they work, how they can be used and how they can benefit from their use. The business community also has concerns; for example, on issues of technology’s intellectual property rights.

The media, the scientific community and other stakeholders have a responsibility to create awareness and bridge knowledge gap on biotechnology. With the current era of infodemic, concerted efforts to battle the spread of misinformation and lies about GMOs are needed. We should lead from the front to shape the narrative on crop biotechnology and dispel any misinformation about the technology.

Gerald Masila is the Chief Executive Officer of East African Grains Council (EAGC)