The emotive nature that characterises biotechnology science played out at a stakeholders’ forum in Nairobi where the link of cancer disease to Genetically Modified (GM) food products elicited a lively debate.
Scientists and stakeholders held their breath each time an organic researcher, Dr Peter Mokaya, reached out for the microphone. “Top-notch scientists have been bought by seed and chemical firms to push the GM agenda. Glyphosates have several devastating biological effects beyond being a probable carcinogen,” he said.
Anxiety would fill the air as Mokaya, a director of Organic Consumers Alliance, declared that he was being outspoken about GM foods safety for Kenyans to understand the risk to cancer spread.
“GMOs and the toxic chemicals used along with them pose a serious threat to the environment and our health, yet government agencies turn a blind eye and refuse to act. And the reason is clear; they are furthering the interests of the biotech giants,” Dr Mokaya said.
Scanning faces of delegates at the expansive e-conference hall at Kenya School of Monetary Studies (KSMS), Dr Mokaya said he wasn’t on a mission to dismantle Bt Cotton and Bt Maize research work that local biotechnology experts have spent close to two decades doing.
“But it is well known that there is a revolving door between State agencies and biotech firms such as Monsanto, recently acquired by Bayer,” he said.
Biotech adoption rising
A renowned biotechnology expert in the UK and European Union, Prof Huw D Jones who had jetted into the country to attend the two-day 8th Annual National Biosafety Conference, watched with disbelief as the debate unfolded. Many delegates were uncomfortable with the media presence as Mokaya attacked his fellow scientists.
Undeterred, Mokaya said on paper, the US may have the strictest food safety laws in the world governing new food additives, but its Food and Development Agency (FDA) has repeatedly allowed GMOs and their accompanying pesticides and herbicides such as Roundup to evade such laws.
He said the only legal basis for allowing GM foods to be marketed in the US is the FDA’s claim that these foods are inherently safe, “a claim which is patently ridiculous”. Documents released as a result of a lawsuit against the FDA reveal that the agency’s own scientists have warned their superiors about the detrimental risks of GMO foods.
Moderating the session, Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Association (Kalro)’s Dr Simon Gichuki, appealed to Dr Mokaya to calm down. Other biotech experts dismissed Mokaya’s claims as unscientific.
The 8th Annual National Biosafety Conference was organised by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) in Nairobi recently.
A biotechnology crusader and director of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (Isaaa) Nairobi centre, Dr Margaret Karembu told delegates GM products are being criminalised by sections of the public and enemies of science after recent deaths of cancer patients.
“In the past, no diagnoses were carried out of the disease. In this country, we don’t have GM foods in the market. We also need to know about any foods causing cancer comes from,” said Dr Karembu.
She said there is unnecessary anxiety being fuelled to discredit GMO science.“If cancer is a problem, why the increase in its adoption, especially abroad?” she posed.
The 2017 Status of Biotechnology report released by ISAAA show adoption has been on the rise, 21 years after the first crops were commercialised. Some 24 countries, 19 developing and five industrialised countries, planted biotech crops in 2017.
NBA CEO Prof Dorington Ogoyi traces the scare to a ban on GMO foods in Kenya imposed in 2012 occasioned by research results carried out by the French scientist, Prof Serallin that linked cancer to GMO foods. At the same time, Health minister and Dagoretti MP Beth Mugo suffered breast cancer.
According to researchers led by Dr Stephen Mugo and Dr Francis Nangayo, the ban should not be applied as a reason to deny Kenya the benefits of biotechnology science. The French researcher has since discarded the results and retracted the study.
Scientists have been cautious about GM products under field trials in various centres in the county. “The process is meant to guarantee safety in line with international safety regulations,” Prof Ogoy said.