Restrictions on genetically-modified crops cause hunger in Kenya as crops fail

Restrictions on genetically-modified crops cause hunger in Kenya as crops fail
A South African farm. YouTube video

Kenya is suffering its worst drought in 40 years. Hunger is rising as crops fail. The hunger wouldn’t be widespread if only Kenya had been growing drought-resistant genetically modified (GM) crops. But nonprofits opposed to genetically modified crops have kept them from being grown for food in Kenya. That reduces crop yields per acre, resulting in less food. And it results in crops being grown that are less drought resistant.

In the arid north of Kenya, rivers are running dry and millions of livestock have already died due to lack of food. About 5 million Kenyans don’t have enough to eat, and the situation will get worse if the coming rainy season fails like the previous five. “I’ve never seen it so bad. There’s nothing in the farms, the drought is too harsh,” says Daniel Magondo, a corn and cotton farmer in central Kenya.

The record-breaking drought is forcing Kenya to revisit a controversial question: whether the nation should grow genetically modified (GM) crops. These are plants that have had genes from another organism inserted into their DNA to give them a new trait, such as disease or drought resistance. Although GM crops are perfectly safe to eat and are widely grown in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, China, and India, governments in many parts of the world, including Europe and East Africa, have resisted them, fearing this new technology.

In 2012, Kenya banned GM crops. The ban was a total one until 2019, when the ban was waived for cotton, letting companies import cotton genetically engineered to be resistant to a destructive pest, the cotton bollworm. In 2020, Kenya’s cabinet voted to create yet another exception to the ban, for pest-resistant genetically-modified corn. Since 2015, fall army worm moths have ravaged corn crops, wiping out a third of Kenya’s yearly production. But lawsuits have blocked the genetically-modified corn, leaving Kenyan farmers dangerously reliant on traditional corn crops not resistant to drought.

The case for growing genetically-modified corn is strong. Last fall, Kenya’s cabinet described how GM corn would increase the country’s food supply, offsetting some of the losses due to the longstanding drought. Kenya’s government ordered 11 tons of pest-resistant GM corn seeds that are widely grown in South Africa. But the seeds have yet to be sown, or even distributed to farmers. That’s because lawsuits were filed by lefty NGOs against the GM corn. This February, Kenya’s GMO regulator was barred from releasing the seeds after four separate lawsuits were filed: three with Kenyan courts and one in the East African Court of Justice.

One lawsuit was filed by an environmentalist group from neighboring Uganda, the Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights (CEFROHT), a Ugandan environmental nonprofit. Others were filed by the Kenyan Peasants League and Paul Mwangi, a Kenyan attorney. CEFROHT claims Kenya’s decision to allow GM crops infringes the East African Community Treaty, which requires member countries like Kenya to protect natural resources. Other groups claim cultivating GM crops will harm indigenous crops. Planting season is just around the corner, and the future of GM crops in Kenya remains in legal jeopardy.

Other NGOs support GM crops as a way to feed growing numbers of hungry people — such as RePlanet Africa, which works to improve Africa’s food security. “Something we’ve been longing for so long as a country has finally come to fruition,” says Timothy Machi of RePlanet Africa. When the lawsuits against GM crops were filed, Machi organized protests in support of GM crops in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and in Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda. In the two cities, hundreds of scientists and others marched in support of GM crops. They held signs that read “GMOs for food security” and bore the hashtag “Let Kenya eat.”

Pro-GMO campaigners note that bringing in pest-resistant crop varieties will increase Kenya’s meager crop yields. Kenyan farms produce much less food than those in other countries. Per acre, Kenya produces only a third as much corn as Brazil, where GM corn is widely grown.

Increasing crop yields not only feeds more people, but also protects forests and the environment. The more food that can be grown on each acre of land, the less forest or grassland that needs to be converted to farmland. As is shown in this chart from Our World in Data, South Asia produces much more cereal crops today than it did 40 years ago—and all of this growth came from increased crop yields. South Asia is not using any more land to grow those crops than it was 40 years ago. In sub-Saharan African countries like Kenya, it’s the reverse. African countries are is also harvesting more cereals than in 1980, but almost all of this increase has come from converting more land into farmland. Low crop yields mean that feeding more people comes at the expense of natural habitats.

GM crops are one obvious way to increase yields. In South Africa, GM corn farms produce 11 percent more per acre on average than non-GM farms—extra corn that would have taken more than 800 square miles of extra farmland to produce using conventional seeds.

In Kenya, by contrast, corn yields have hardly increased in the past three decades, and recurring droughts are placing its already stressed agricultural system under increased pressure. “All the [corn] plantations which we planted, they’ve dried even before they’ve produced anything,” says Magondo. When the government lifted the ban on GM cotton in 2019, Magondo was one of the first farmers to plant GM cotton. Now he’s using much less pesticide and harvesting much more cotton than he used to. If GM corn is allowed into Kenya, Magondo will plant the seeds in his fields as soon as he can.

Patricia Nanteza of RePlanet Africa predicts that the temporary injunctions against Kenya growing GM corn will eventually be overturned, allowing farmers to grow GM crops. But a date for the court hearings hasn’t been set yet, and the outcome remains uncertain.

LU Staff

LU Staff

Promoting and defending liberty, as defined by the nation’s founders, requires both facts and philosophical thought, transcending all elements of our culture, from partisan politics to social issues, the workings of government, and entertainment and off-duty interests. Liberty Unyielding is committed to bringing together voices that will fuel the flame of liberty, with a dialogue that is lively and informative.


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