Kimani Chege
Kimani Chege

GMs or non-GMs: Let my people eat

Kenya is a unique country if not peculiar. It is a country of million experts but no one listens to each others advice. It is a country that has taken almost two decades to have a constitutional change. It is a country whose leadership fight in public over small issues like who speaks first and who seats where in public podium. It is a country where fame is gained by plundering public resources and no one raises a voice after a month or so (short memory span). It is a country where campaigning never stops even a day after elections. It is a country where the northerners feel they are traveling to Kenya when they visit the better south.

I will not talk much about my country, lest someone thinks am less than patriotic. It has wonderful things too and wonderful people who make life interesting. However, today I am going to talk about a million experts, or do I call them pseudo-experts.

To understand where I am coming from, Kenya has not managed to feed its population in its almost 50 years of independence from Britain. Two thirds of the country is semi-arid, with little agriculture going on.

The northern part of the country is extremely dry, making inhabitants of this area bordering Somali and Ethiopia vulnerable every year. Sometimes it rains but only for a short period.

The irony of the whole matter is, with 48 years of independence, the country has not bothered to learn and shield these vulnerable populations from this menace. No viable irrigation scheme has been initiated for the longest time, no clear roads have been made to facilitate food delivery and trade, and no efforts have been made to rid of insecurity that is the order of the day in this region.

The latest drought, among the many that has hit this area is leaving many dejected by the government failure to cater for its population. The government on its part has agreed to allow importation of GMO maize (a term I think is most inappropriately used to refer to transgenic). This has raised more dust that the hunger pains affecting the people of Northern Kenya.

One MP wakes up and announces were the genetically modified food (GM) products are being distributed. He goes further and points how Kenyans are going to be impotent soon because of GM maize. His comments are quickly picked by the other legislators including a health minister. Everyone becomes an expert of how the country will be wiped out because of GM maize. Even the scientists do not seem to agree, (which is nature of science).

I don’t know a lot about genetic modification but there are sure things that I know, and one of them is that they don’t cause impotence. If they did, many Americans, probably South Africans would be a worried lot.

Fewer babies will be popping out, literally. I also know that a starving mother would take any food so long as the baby sees another day. The sad thing is that the starving population is opting for poisonous roots to sustain their children, which does not succeed much.

One more thing my limited scientific knowledge tells me is that genetic modification has been going on for as long as the world has existed. In fact, we as humans are products of genetic modification of some sort.

Our genes are not exactly as those of our great grand fathers, neither is it as those of our fathers. Every union only improves the genetic make-up. More so, the maize we know has undergone numerous genetic improvement from the wild relative that grew somewhere in Mexico.

Modern science, which Kenyan taxpayers pay (at least 2% of GDP goes or should go to science and technology) is evidence-based. For a product to be registered, it goes through various experiments. This is a long a tedious process that only scientists can understand. The emergence of modern skills to map genes and show how each works and its effects if combined with a different gene has made things more easier and probably, I say probably, safer. This is an improvement from the traditional breeding where researchers were transferring bothdesirable traits and some not so desirable traits.

I do not approve unethical scientific maneuvers and it would be stupid to give scientists full faith as things have gone really bad in the past, but let the pseudo experts argue with facts. The media is rife with images of starving children in this part of the country, and if you are going to refuse the importation of ground flour for these people, I do not know who, you as a law maker and representative of the people you are fighting for.

To clarify issues, Kenya has one of the stringent bio-safety legislation in the continent. A bio-safety policy also exists to regulate and deal with rogue scientists who introduce material without permission. The legislation gives clear guidelines of what the country should do in case one has to bring in transgenic material into the country. It defeats logic when the same lawmaker fail to read the law they make — some are always photographed sleeping in Parliament — and quickly take up the role of alarmists and in the process look very ignorant.

The worrying trend about these “experts” is they are too worried about being impotent, yet they are not keen on other things that have been proved to cause impotence like tobacco addiction as well as consumption of blindening substances in the name of traditional liquors. They don’t seem to see the link.

  • thula

    This article makes some good points about the urgency of the problem, that it is one of infrastructure, and that hungry people will take anything. When the direction of his argument challenges him to actually analyse the issue, suddenly he says he doesn’t really know about gmo’s, or science, and this and that. So he ends up omitting the long-term effects on local economy of gmo crops, and leakage, and that the health effects will show up after years.

    the most insidious effect is the subsequent lack of choice. once gmo’s are in a country a corporatist (rather than sustainable) model ensues. Monsanto et al counter objections by saying – well, you have it already. But there is evidence it does bleed into adjacent crops, and affect animals, insects etc. Go read about it. It is true that US boys are being born now with small and unusual genitals, and tjhat there is some impotency, but the cause of it is still being studied. Once a society gets to a critical mass of pollution and toxicity it is hard to identify one cause, it is usually a cluster. Just because some idiots oppose it for the wrong reason, doesn’t make it right. It just perpetuates the US govt support of the spread of gmo’s. People are dying now, and some might be saved with gmos, and they will have kids and another cycle of dying will happen if infrastructure issues are not debated responsibility and acted

  • Aragorn23

    @Kimani: Your entire article can be summed up with your admission that you ‘don’t know a lot about genetic modification’. Seriously, employing arguments like ‘genetic modification has been going on for as long as the world has existed’ betrays a near-total ignorance of the subject.

    Drought and famine are tragedies (and tragedies often traceable to neocolonialist interests), but to pose a false dilemma between GMO’s and starvation is to miss out on many safer, more effective, high-yield options for food production and to hand over the long term food security of your nation to corporate control.

  • Sithembiso Malusi Mahlaba

    Fact matters, fiction sensationalizes. Great article indeed. I will say the great threat posed by GMO products is business monopoly, than health risk issues.The big companies have patents in place,to keep farmers buying seeds year in, year out. This is the main challenge,however on the issue of side effects said to caused by GMO products consumption,such assumptions are just waffle, no medical science research has shown link or correlation between impotence and consumption of GMO foods.

  • Enough Said

    The above author is not very informed himself on the subject of GMOs. GMO’s are harmful to human health and the environment, read the science yourself. Furthermore patented seeds and reduction of biodiversity are a threat to food security.

  • Stephen Browne

    You are writing on the wrong forum I’m afraid. GM crops are verboden around here. Instead one should eat vegetables lovingly nutured by a local grower. It is also compulsory to buy them on a Sunday morning while sipping a soy bean latte.

  • Andrew

    A lot of people have jumped onto the bandwagon and vilified GM foods without doing much research on the issue. Humans have been genetically modifying crops and livestock for thousands of years through selective breeding. For example, the original maize plant looks nothing like the varieties that are farmed today. Detractors of GM technology seem to think that GM plants are some sort of Frankenstein creation. I think the real issue however is the corporations in control of GM technology, not the products themselves.

  • Prince Shumba

    Exactly what is prevailing in Zimbabwe. Why should these ‘officials’ work to dictate what food should not be availed to their constituents? Why not give the affected people a choice? Hunger and malnutrition kill! No question about it. ‘GMOs’ might possibly have some adverse effect – really why don’t we just eat, or at least have the freedom to choose to.

  • Glenn Ashton

    Chenge misses a major contradiction in his article. On the one hand he points out that since independence his government has not supported irrigation schemes, infrastructure development, agricultural outreach and so on. Yet they have supposedly developed a good biosafety protocol.

    Surely it is far more important to establish supportive infrastructure for agriculture than to put laws and regulations in place and then permit the introduction of GM crops which have serious implications on Kenyan food sovereignty and safety?

    Also, normal breeding in humans or food crops is completely different to GMOs. GMOs introduce foreign genes through technical means. Breeding is only possible through related species. GMO crops contain antibiotic, viral, artificial and bacterial genes. It is only through GM industry propaganda that people are misled to believe that breeding and genetic engineering are at all similar.

    As far as sterility goes, various studies and other anecdotal reports have indicated that sterility is indeed a risk if high proportions of GMOs are consumed. It is not only the GMOs but also the chemicals applied to GM crops that carry dangers for sterility. There is an interesting article here
    Also a company in the US, Epicyte, did produce a maize variety to induce male sterility. Yum.

    The first solution to food security is improved infrastructure and information on production. If that fails then examine alternatives. But don’t put the cart before the horse.


    Scare tactics are a wonderful marketing tool for people with alternative products – and Africa is a sponge for scary stories. The result is a fear of GM food that has been eaten safely for 17 years by millions of people. It is heartening to see common sense overcoming these fears.

  • Michael Mokotong

    Hi Kimani
    Genetic modifications do not necessarily improve genes. They are a random change which may produce offsprings which are better adapted to the environment. The selection of better genes from the randomly produced choices is effected by the earlier death or failure in reproductive competition of the animals which have inherited weaker genes.

  • The Critical Cynic

    What can we say Kimane, how about that well worn phrase “Welcome to Africa”.
    The situation you are describing is all over our continent and ignorance and greed drive most african leaders and those in influential positions to continually make poor decisions, despite the trend of never-ending self-congratulation in the face of poor performance.

  • Michael

    Three points:

    1. Kenya does not have stringent biosafety laws. In many other countries biosafety legislation is based on ‘strict liability’ where the people who apply for and bring the GM technology are clearly liable for any damage that results. Kenya does not have this, and any damage compensation would have to be argued out in the courts, against very expensive industry lawyers.

    2. Americans were the main force behind the speedy enactment of Kenya’s biosafety laws allowing the introduction of genetically modified crops and products into the country, a diplomatic cable released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks has revealed. A cable sent to the American Secretary of State in March 2009, by US ambassador Michael Ranneberger, just a few days after President Kibaki had signed the Biosafety Act 2009 into law, tells of how the use of [U.S.] financial and technical support helped to speed up and overcome opposition to the Bill.

    3.The World Agriculture Report (IAASTD), the UN and the African Union all recommend that governments and international agencies redirect and increase their funding towards a revolution in agriculture that is firmly agro-ecological, to move away from destructive and chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and to adopt environmental modern farming methods that champion biodiversity and benefit local communities, to resist the introduction of genetically-modified varieties as a threat to crop diversity, and to radically shift to sustainable agriculture, including organic farming.

  • Taylor

    Yes Kimani, genetic modification has been going on since the world began but that is a NATURAL process that leads to survival of the fittest. GM of foods is an entirely artificial undertaking so no, it is not the same thing. And GM foods can have unforeseen detrimental effects because they have not been time-tested.

  • Gail

    @ aragorn23: Your argument is as flawed as that of the columnist’s. Just how exactly is neocolonialism responsible for drought and famine? The cause of drought and famine is absolutely related to climatic changes and overpopulation. The only way in which neocolonialism can be said to have anything to do with it is by making humane attempts at sustaining people incapable of sustaing themselves and connecting the dots between overbreeding and lack of resources. This may sound inhumane but I sometimes wonder how much good man’s humanity does when it supplies food to starving people, merely to look good without realising that they are prolonging what is in fact a natural process of attrition. Yes, babies are dying as well as adults and animals, but of what use is it to render human aid when all one is doing is allowing people with no means or strength to sustain themselves to live and continue adding suffering children to the equation?
    I would also challenge the columnist’s assertion that every union between two adults necessaril results in better genetic material since this is obviously the crux of the matter. FACT is that not every human life begins with improvement on what was there previously or we wouldn’t have malformed and illinformed people in such numbers requiring support from outsiders to enable them to survive in the first place. Scientio has its etymology in the dim distant past meaning knowledge “eat not of the fruit of the knowledge of good…

  • http://http:/ Walter Pike

    Yes you are right, a lot of the “debate” regarding genetic modification can be grouped into a space we could call science denialism, it’s a total red herring. There is an economic issue related to patents on modified seed. But you are right as regards where the focus needs to be placed.

  • Enough Said

    A good book to read to inform oneself on the topic of genetic modification of food/crops is: “Seeds of Destruction. The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation”, by F. William Engdahl.

  • Enough Said

    If GM soy does this to hampsters, what is it doing to humans?

    “Genetically Modified Soy Linked to Sterility, Infant Mortality in Hamsters”


  • benzo

    Impotency in the world? A blessing in disguise?

  • Iqshan

    Notice how the people who are anti-GM crops are also usually obviously never hungry (to the extent they can follow pseudo diets omitting whole food groups often?), nor have ever seen hunger?

    They’re also often the same guys who disagree that the Agricultural Revolution was a good thing. It ‘was bad for animal life…’ (as if animals are ever as important as people), ‘…it stopped people rising up against capitalism…’ (as if the socialist and communist world weren’t forced to import wheat and corn from the US), etc. Luckily their opinions don’t count.

    The beauty of GM crops is that we’ll all eat them. and shortly too. Fruitarians, vegans, vegetarians, organic hippies, raw foodists and so on: the magic of cross-pollination will ensure that all food within a period of time is GM. Live with it

  • Paul

    Iqshan -No one who is conscious of what they eat would readily buy GMO foodstufs, also traditional maize’s have a protein content of 21% and above,which you can grow and develop healthy people, GMO maize has less than 2% protein and lots of sugars, you will still be hungary and malnourished, can you live with it !

  • Paul

    Iqshan -No one who is conscious of what they eat would readily buy GMO foodstuffs, also traditional maize’s have a protein content of 21% and above,which you can grow and develop healthy people, GMO maize has less than 2% protein and lots of sugars, you will still be hungry and malnourished, can you live with it !

  • Enough Said

    GM crops have dramatically icreased the use of Roundup herbicide which has been linked to birth defects in humans “Study Shows Monsanto Roundup Herbicide Link to Birth Defects”

  • Enough Said

    Then of course there is the nighmare unfolding in India where farmers that converted from conventional cotton to GM Bt cotton face financial ruin and thousands have comitted suicide as a result: “Farmer Suicides and Bt Cotton Nightmare Unfolding in India”

  • Judith

    GM crops make poor farmers dependent on multinationals for seed. In South America and the US GM crops are having extremely negative effects on other crops and on human health. These are “plastic” modifications and geared towards multinational profits and disempowering of local farmers. GM seeds in SA have negatively affected our own small farmers and put them into bankruptcy. New farming methods which conserve water are to be preferred and are very productive. With climate change we have to look at low water farming methods.

  • Iqshan

    @ Paul: That’s not what I was saying. I was saying that because bees (I’m watching some on a rosebush that has prawn DNA and subsequently is frost-proof right now), wasps, flies, aphids, the wind, etc, aren’t aware of the subtleties of GM versus non-GM pollen, the non-GM will be bred with the GM. The bees just jumped onto a non-GM rose. It’s early days, the GM crops will get better. You’ll eat them too, if you’re not already

  • Enough Said

    Exposed: the great GM crops myth –

    Major new study shows that modified soya produces 10 per cent less food than its conventional equivalent


  • Enough Said

    Superpests and superweeds from farming GM crops are also a major problem.

    Here is a case for superpests:

    Field-Evolved Resistance to Bt Maize by Western Corn Rootworm


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  • Ross

    I’ve been eating lamb DNA all my life- I haven’t suddenly grown wool and started go “baa”.
    DNA whether its fish, maize or lamb is made of 4 amino acids. Each type is just rearranged to give the different DNAs. Its that simple. Your body will digest it just as it digests protein.
    Its somewhat unfortunate that the multinational companies have been the first organisations to provide the technology. Its led to the conspiracy theory nut heads. However, its expensive technology and has to be paid for somehow.
    I think from now on we will see more benefits of GMO technology- like drought tolerance, better nutrition etc.
    I would like to commend Kimani on his frank observations on the subject

  • Enough Said

    GM crop technplogy is extremely expensive in terms of environmental destruction, human health hazards, damaging food security, etc. etc. … it would be good if Kenyans banned it and did not have to pay the price.

  • Enough Said

    “Any politician or scientist who tells you GM products are safe is either very stupid or lying,” geneticist Professor David Suzuki.


    The Health Risks of GM Foods: Summary and Debate: