GMO maize field trials renew career hopes for biotechnology students

By Gerald Andae

When Ngure Mutero was five months into completion of his biotechnology degree, the Health ministry imposed a ban on Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops in Kenya. This was devastating news.

After years of studying biotechnology, his skills would have gone to waste following the ban on use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products in Kenya.

Despite the ban, Mr Mutero who was doing undergraduate studies at the Kenyatta University enrolled for a Master’s degree, hoping that there would be a policy change.

“As a biotechnology student, the news on the ban of GMO imports was devastating and I felt hopeless that all that I had studied would go to waste,” he said.

As the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) granted a conditional approval for the environmental release of biotech maize (BT MON 810) last week and plans to issue its verdict on genetically-modified cotton next month, Mr Mutero is hopeful.

However, the NBA’s chief executive officer Willy Tonui was quick to add that the authority has only granted permission for the environmental release, but the genetically modified maize cannot be cultivated yet or commercialised.

“The authority has granted a conditional approval only for environmental release for the purpose of conducting National Performance Trials and collecting analysis data, but not for cultivation, importation or placing in the market,” said Mr Tonui.

But despite the NBA’s cautionary note, the approval, to Mr Mutero is one small but vital step for GMO proponents and a giant leap for Kenya.

Dr Joel Ochieng’, the secretary-general of the Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium welcomed the decision by NBA, conditions notwithstanding, saying it gives a ray of hope to students of biotechnology, whose careers have been hanging in the balance as they could not apply the skills learnt.

He pointed out that university intakes for biotechnology courses dropped significantly following the GMO ban in 2012 as students were discouraged from studying a course whose practical application was not guaranteed.

Dr Ochieng’ said more than five Kenyan universities offer degree courses in biotechnology, enrolling students who get very high grades in secondary schools and a total ban on GMO would mean that these students seek jobs in alternative fields.

“When we restrict GMOs and we have students who are pursuing those courses, it creates an impression in their minds that what they are doing is useless since they cannot execute what they were taught anywhere within the country,” he said.

In 2014, student admission to biotechnology course stood at 1,872 with 29 learners switching to other fields, underlining waning interest in the programme. In 2011, only three students made the switch.

The conditional approval comes almost a year after the Kenya Agricultural Research Organisation (Kalro) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) applied for the environmental release, cultivation, and placing on the market the GMO crops.

Mr Tonui said that prior to the seed trials, the applicants will have to conduct an environmental impact assessment and submit the report to the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) before their request is considered.

The environmental assessment is aimed at highlighting the impact of the crop on the surroundings, the views of the people in regard to the GMO crops as well as the opinions of the decision-makers in different counties concerning the crop.

During the field trials, the NBA will compare between the conventional seed varieties and the genetically-modified ones to determine changes in nutritional composition, yield performance and pest tolerance.

“We will use these parameters to determine the suitability of the biotech seeds,” said Mr Tonui in an interview with the Business Daily.

Kalro and AATF are also be required to provide detailed biosafety stewardship programme and monitoring roadmap to the NBA. The trial crops are planted in Kalro farms across the country.

Dr Ochieng’ said some of the NBA conditions, such as complying with the existing laws are tricky.

“When you say that the ban has been lifted, but there are conditions tied to it, especially on compliance with the law, it is as good as the permission has not been granted since it will take us back to the restrictions guiding the ban currently,” he said.

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