Guest blog: GMs or non-GMs: Let my people eat (By: Kimani Chege, Kenya)
Kimani Chege is a science journalist based in Nairobi. The original version of this post can be found at Thought Leader.
Kenya is a unique country if not peculiar. It is a country of million experts but no one listens to each others advice. It is a country that has taken almost two decades to have a constitutional change. It is a country whose leadership fight in public over small issues like who speaks first and who seats where in public podium. It is a country where fame is gained by plundering public resources and no one raises a voice after a month or so (short memory span). It is a country where campaigning never stops even a day after elections. It is a country where the northerners feel they are traveling to Kenya when they visit the better south.
I will not talk much about my country, lest someone thinks am less than patriotic. It has wonderful things too and wonderful people who make life interesting. However, today I am going to talk about a million experts, or do I call them pseudo-experts.
To understand where I am coming from, Kenya has not managed to feed its population in its almost 50 years of independence from Britain. Two thirds of the country is semi-arid, with little agriculture going on.
The northern part of the country is extremely dry, making inhabitants of this area bordering Somali and Ethiopia vulnerable every year. Sometimes it rains but only for a short period.
The irony of the whole matter is, with 48 years of independence, the country has not bothered to learn and shield these vulnerable populations from this menace. No viable irrigation scheme has been initiated for the longest time, no clear roads have been made to facilitate food delivery and trade, and no efforts have been made to rid of insecurity that is the order of the day in this region.
The latest drought, among the many that has hit this area is leaving many dejected by the government failure to cater for its population. The government on its part has agreed to allow importation of GMO maize (a term I think is most inappropriately used to refer to transgenic). This has raised more dust that the hunger pains affecting the people of Northern Kenya.
One MP wakes up and announces were the genetically modified food (GM) products are being distributed. He goes further and points how Kenyans are going to be impotent soon because of GM maize. His comments are quickly picked by the other legislators including a health minister. Everyone becomes an expert of how the country will be wiped out because of GM maize. Even the scientists do not seem to agree, (which is nature of science).
I don’t know a lot about genetic modification but there are sure things that I know, and one of them is that they don’t cause impotence. If they did, many Americans, probably South Africans would be a worried lot.
Fewer babies will be popping out, literally. I also know that a starving mother would take any food so long as the baby sees another day. The sad thing is that the starving population is opting for poisonous roots to sustain their children, which does not succeed much.
One more thing my limited scientific knowledge tells me is that genetic modification has been going on for as long as the world has existed. In fact, we as humans are products of genetic modification of some sort.
Our genes are not exactly as those of our great grand fathers, neither is it as those of our fathers. Every union only improves the genetic make-up. More so, the maize we know has undergone numerous genetic improvement from the wild relative that grew somewhere in Mexico.
Modern science, which Kenyan taxpayers pay (at least 2% of GDP goes or should go to science and technology) is evidence-based. For a product to be registered, it goes through various experiments. This is a long a tedious process that only scientists can understand. The emergence of modern skills to map genes and show how each works and its effects if combined with a different gene has made things more easier and probably, I say probably, safer. This is an improvement from the traditional breeding where researchers were transferring bothdesirable traits and some not so desirable traits.
I do not approve unethical scientific maneuvers and it would be stupid to give scientists full faith as things have gone really bad in the past, but let the pseudo experts argue with facts. The media is rife with images of starving children in this part of the country, and if you are going to refuse the importation of ground flour for these people, I do not know who, you as a law maker and representative of the people you are fighting for.
To clarify issues, Kenya has one of the stringent bio-safety legislation in the continent. A bio-safety policy also exists to regulate and deal with rogue scientists who introduce material without permission. The legislation gives clear guidelines of what the country should do in case one has to bring in transgenic material into the country. It defeats logic when the same lawmaker fail to read the law they make — some are always photographed sleeping in Parliament — and quickly take up the role of alarmists and in the process look very ignorant.
The worrying trend about these “experts” is they are too worried about being impotent, yet they are not keen on other things that have been proved to cause impotence like tobacco addiction as well as consumption of blindening substances in the name of traditional liquors. They don’t seem to see the link.