Need for scientists, regulators and journalists to work together for a biosafe nation

Which Way GMOs

By Aghan Daniel,

Biosafety is important but so is ensuring that GM crops benefit the rural poor and that decisions are based on sound science.

Journalists can report on progress being made on various issues on biosafety right from processes, new developments, challenges, available biosafety systems, regulations and policies. How does Kenya compare with other countries, neighbours, internationally etc?

And most importantly the importance of such issues. For regulators, what is your role, challenges, how effective are you in your work, what are some of the processes of getting products? We talk about national performance trials, confined trials etc, what do these mean? What does it take to do all these and why do them in the first place?

The GMOs ban: wonder of wonders that the ban came as a surprise even to the chief regulators and scientific advisors of the government of the day. NBA was caught with her pants down – there was no explanation whatsoever coming from scientists, from NBA – NBA was actually switched off.

The journalists expected at that time that these bodies work together but that was not depicted – journalists ran around and thank God that some bold scientists from the University of Nairobi came to the rescue of journalist by being available for interview as TV is all about sound bytes.

Nearly 6 months later, the then PS for Agriculture in Kenya, Dr Romano Kiome came out in the open to dismiss the ban as being unscientific. To date there is confusion, do we have a ban or not? And by the way, it is important for regulators to explain the process of effecting a ban – is it through a media conference, release, a gazette notice, or an advertisement?

Three years before the ban, Kenya had set up the NBA tasked with supervising the transfer, handling and use of GMOs. It aims at establishing a transparent, science based and predictable process for reviewing use of GMOs. This means that Kenya had already established a scientific agency to assess safety concerns. Yet with all this machinery in place, the ban was hardly explained to the public, but most importantly, the journalists want to know what impact the ban could have on research,
development, trade etc.

I want to continue challenging scientists to join the debate; In Sept 2011, Kenya’s then Agriculture Secretary, Dr Wilson Songa urged scientists to join the debate on GM foods and not leave it to politicians. You of course know the messy and dramatic ways politicians can explain GM related issues, take the case of the immediate MP for Naivasha who served as the chair of the Parliamentary

Committee on Agriculture, Mr Mutotho. He went on to vilify GM foods and biotechnology in general.

Given, researchers have knowledge which they can use to educate the public and save them from the dangerous propaganda going round about GMOs.

Scientists must effectively, competently, and soberly link science with the society. We must provide information that can tantalize the public to appreciate the role of biosafety systems rather than provide alarming information. I was recently in Bujumbura, Burundi where a professor claimed that he was part of the team of scientists who worked with Seralini to conduct research on GMOs and rats. The truth is, he does not even know Seralini is French!

Scientific institutions must come out to demonstrate to the public (to build their confidence in their ability and work) that they indeed have the capacity to deal with biosafety issues.

Terminology: A differentiation should be made by scientists between tolerance and resistance etc.

Does the public know what it takes for a product to reach the market?

Intellectual property and trade: Then there are the issues of IP – are corporations taking ownership of genetic material, undermining the staple practice of farmers using and sharing their own seed from one year to the next?

Danger risk of biodiversity loss: there is need to explain to journalists the impact of GM on insects and birds.

Scientists need to ensure that national agricultural policies take into account the interests of the poor farmers and give rural communities sufficient leverage over decision making to ensure that GM crops meet locally defined needs.

Need to explain how regulations are scientifically sound – some scientists exaggerate the impact of

GM crops eg that they poison the environment, that they are supersedes etc.

Journalists must develop a passion to report on biosafety correctly.

Scientists must embrace that we are past the dawn of social media, that you can use facebook, blogs, participate in citizen journalism so that they make their work known. Think about Norman Borlaug and his time, he had very few media tools and he used them effectively. Are scientists taking advantage of all the new media?

Scientists need to be empowered by the institutions to speak/interact with the media. Perhaps an annual communication/scientific clinic every January/February?

Scientists can creatively work with the media by dedicating a day or two to live a journalist’s life, visit the media house, attend editorial meeting, go out in the field with a reporter, collect the information, get back to the studio/desk and bang/edit the story …..

Finally, we need to think over and over again about our audience. Think about the question we usually ask at the corporate communication level – who is your target? Think about the journalist’s target – donors, school children, donors, professors etc.

We are told you need to write for the common man, are we too concerned with the ordinary man to a point of diluting information?

*This article was first presented at The Second National Biosafety Conference on Thursday, August 8, 2013

**The writer is the Communication and Advocacy Officer at African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) and also the out-going Secretary of MESHA

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About meshakenya

Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture in Kenya (MESHA) is an association of communicators who are specialized in science, environment, agriculture, health, technology and development reporting.
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