Kenya is in in the midst of its worst drought in 40 years. In the arid north of the country, rivers are drying up and millions of cattle have perished from lack of food. Around 4.4 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 him so badly. There is nothing on the farms, the drought is too harsh,” says Daniel Magondo, a cotton and maize farmer in central Kenya.
The record drought is forcing Kenya to grapple with a controversial topic: should the country 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 safe to eat and are widely cultivated in the United States, Canada, Brazil and India, governments in many parts of the world, including Europe and East Africa, pushed them back.
This was the case in Kenya in 2012, when the cabinet prohibits their import. The ban remained in place until 2019, when the government allowed the import of GM cotton designed to resist a pest called the cotton bollworm. And then, in October 2022, the cabinet said it would allow farmers to grow pest-resistant GM maize, ending the country’s decade-long ban on GM crops. Since 2015, Fall Armyworms have ravaged maize crops, destroying an estimated one-third of the annual production.
In a statement released in October, Kenya’s cabinet said GM maize would help improve the country’s food supply, relieving some of the pressure from the ongoing drought. The government has ordered 11 tonnes of pest-resistant GM maize seed which is widely grown in South Africa and has also been tested in Kenya. But then, in February 2023, Kenya’s GMO regulator was banned from releasing the seeds after four separate legal complaints were filed: three in Kenyan courts and one in the US Court of Justice. East Africa.
A complaint was filed by the Center for Food and Adequate Living Rights (CEFROHT), a Ugandan non-profit environmental organization. Others were filed by the Kenyan Peasants League and Paul Mwangi, a Kenyan lawyer. CEFROHT says the Kenyan move violated the East African Community Treaty, which obliges East African countries to protect natural resources. Other groups fear that the cultivation of GM maize will distract farmers from indigenous crops. With the planting season fast approaching, the future of GM crops in Kenya is in limbo until the courts make a decision.
Timothy Machi welcomed the cancellation of the GMO ban. “Something we’ve been waiting for so long that a country has finally materialized,” says Machi, Kenyan head of development NGO RePlanet Africa, which campaigns to improve Africa’s food security. So when news broke that the decision had been challenged in court, Machi helped organize protests in Nairobi and Kampala in neighboring Uganda. In both cities, some 200 scientists and activists marched in support of GM crops. They held signs that read ‘GMOs for food security’ and promoted the hashtag ‘Let Kenya Eat’.
Pro-GMO activists hope the introduction of pest-resistant crop varieties will help bolster the country’s meager crop yields. Kenyan farms produce far less food than those in other countries. Per hectare, Kenya produces a third more maize than Brazil, where GM maize is widely grown. Yields of Kenyan maize are also much lower than countries where GM maize is not grown, such as China and France. In Uganda, where politicians are consider introducing a bill banning GMOs, yields are also lower than in other major corn producing countries. “We have not reached our potential,” says Patricia Nanteza, Ugandan manager of RePlanet Africa.