The Kenyan government is planning to roll out genetically modified cassava- that is resistant to Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) that is common in Kenya. The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) is inviting the public for comments after Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KARLO) applied for the open field cultivation and commercialization of the crop. The public has until 14th of June to submit their views with virtual forums being organized due to Covid-19 restrictions. A Facebook live session was held on 29th May. A public participation forum is also slated for 10th of June on Zoom.
Without questioning the efficacy of GM cassava, Agroecologist Nasike Akello poses some tough questions that should be the focus of these public participation forums. First, how many small-scale farmers growing cassava in Kenya can access and actively contribute to virtual forums on Facebook and Zoom? This raises the question on why KARLO and NBA cannot wait until the covid-19 pandemic is over and conduct effective forums with a special focus on counties where the crop is extensively.
GM seeds could also be out of reach for many resource-poor small-scale farmers. Smallholders in developing countries have developed effective and cheap systems to save and exchange organic seeds. Reproducing GM cassava seeds (if possible) could attract legal suits for growing a patented crop illegally. In case, there are plans, to make them affordable, will they tie the farmers to exploitative contracts and push them further to poverty? It is in public domain that GM technology has been monopolized a few Global North-dominated companies whose main objective is making profits.
Finally, GM crops can alter the biodiversity in several ways. Insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant GM crops could result in insects developing resistance to pesticides and emergence of ‘super weeds’ respectively. This could result to farmers intensifying the use of chemicals with harmful effects on the food system and the environment in general. A GM crop could also turn into a weed or crosspollinate with conventional crop with negative effects on other crops too. This is possible even when your farm is
As such, it would not be prudent to introduce GM crops in a country without a comprehensive regulatory framework on biotechnology and a comprehensive and effective public engagement. There are other crop improvement technologies other than GM that could be effective for our food system that is dominated by poor smallholders who often go hungry themselves. There should be no rush in introducing GM crops that have pose socio-economic and ecological risks that would be hard to reverse.