By George Achia
A cabinet meeting chaired by former president, Mwai Kibaki, in November last year, directed the then public health minister Beth Mugo to ban Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) imports until the country is able to certify that GMOs have no negative impact on people’s health.
The ban came as a shock to many biotech players including scientists and GM regulatory agencies such as the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) who maintained they were never consulted.
It was also feared that the ban could be a significant blow to progress on biotechnology research and development in the country.
Mugo then moved fast to constitute a taskforce to look at all available evidence and scientific research before lifting the ban. The report from the taskforce is expected later this month.
One pertinent question that many are asking, and which even experts from the National Commission of Science and Technology (NACOST) fear to tell journalists is: who are the members of this taskforce? What are their backgrounds and which organizations are they drawn from?
When I asked Dr. Benson Mburu, senior science secretary at NASCOSTI about this, he was very protective and stingy with information.
“The taskforce is still doing its work and based on the report they will submit later next month (August), the government can make its decision,” he told journalists attending a press conference dubbed Great Debate on GMOs in Kenya at KICC on Thursday last week.
“I may know some people in the taskforce from individual basis but that is something I cannot talk about and the criteria used to appoint them,” he said.
While dismissing the ban as inconsequential and lacking the backing of the law since the ban was never gazetted, Romano Kiome, former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture once said in a meeting “although a “political stand” could hold sway for a time it is no substitute for a considered professional judgment”.
The ban came long after the country had put in place agencies mandated to oversee various regulatory issues. Such agencies include NBA, NACOSTI, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services and National Environment Management Authority.
It could be worth knowing whether the people in the taskforce are drawn from such agencies as they are better placed to tell whether there is “lack of sufficient information on the public health impact of such foods”, as Mugo argued.
Of interest to know also are the exact issues that the taskforce is looking at, because Kenya had set up, for instance, the NBA, tasked with supervising the transfer, handling and use of GMOs.
In addition, research institutions both national and international; have confirmed that there is scientific information on safety on GM products on human besides improving agricultural productivity.
As it stands now, according to Dr Mburu, it is the Attorney General office to give legal direction since “NBA which is mandated to handle GMO issues was never consulted and there was no gazettment of the ban,” said Mburu. Because
The writer is a Science Writer based in Kenya and a Sci-DeV Fellow