Finally, an about-turn on GMOs (Daily Nation (Kenya))

Deputy President William Ruto has said that the ban on genetically modified crops will be lifted in two months. Aside from this being a good thing, we should commend the DP as this is the fifth time, by my count, that he has spoken in support of GM crops.

During a book launch last year, Kiraitu Murungi, the head of the Senate Agricultural Committee, pointed out that regulation has always been outpaced by innovation as he endorsed GMOs. The tide on GM crops is turning, with several other leaders speaking out on their need. The challenge remains convincing a Kenyan public that have been fed whole lies and half-truths on GM crops and their safety.

First, we have been told that GM is artificial, as though natural automatically equals good and artificial is bad. It isn’t.

The second myth is that farming as is currently practised is natural. It isn’t; hunting and gathering are natural. All the food we eat does not occur naturally but has been selected through years of breeding. Maize, our staple food, was brought here by the Portuguese, our favourite potatoes are Irish, and if you say Jersey the average Kenyan does not think of an island in Britain, but of a cow.

Our palette is a tale of globalisation and selection. Go around the country and you will encounter crop monocultures, none of which is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Our animals and crops are bred for different qualities. There is a reason that our preferred highland dairy cows come from a freezer in Kabete. Farmers use artificial insemination to get better yields due to the swollen udders of Friesian cows. Maize and its granary-load of different hybrid seeds is perhaps the most potent example of selection and breeding. Our apples are also cloned and imported from South Africa.

The story of feeding our numbers, now in the billions, is one of constant genetic tinkering. However, droughts are natural, pests are natural, and so is blight. Science can be a cure for nature, as has happened with diseases like smallpox.

The problem, of course, is that this type of generational interbreeding we have been practising on crops takes time, so why not just lift individual genes from one species and put them in another to achieve desired results?

Science has moved past the constraints of nature to even create amino acids that cannot exist in nature. Earlier in the year we learnt that we have cells that cannot grow without particular synthetic chemicals around them. The conditions for transferring genes between animals and crops often cannot exist in nature, but often we have several years of testing to certify crops as safe.

NO LONGER NEW

The next idea is that GMOs are new and therefore unsafe. We passed the tipping point on GMOs a long time ago. More than a trillion meal servings of GM products have been eaten and no one has developed as much as a rash as a result. A tenth of all the food grown originated from a lab. GM is no longer new.

The claim that GMOs harm us is without truth. There still is no evidence. Even the repository of settled scientific opinion, the Encyclopedia Britannica, points out this fact.

The objection to GM because of the activities of one seed manufacturer’s monopolistic business practices is absurd. Imagine saying that we should stop using mobile phones because the market is dominated by one player.

Also, if legitimate concerns exist in biodiversity, then can we at least move away from a blanket condemnation of all GM crops? You can’t condemn nuclear energy for its bombs and ignore the fact that it produces the most carbon-neutral power.

Kenya is rich in intellectual capacity in bio-technology. We have PhDs, hundreds of masters and thousands of degrees in the field. The courses are all certified by the government. Other nations are taking note, and several students from countries neighbouring ours are pursuing PhDs in our universities in this field, ready to take the information home. How can others capitalise on our capacity and yet we hesitate?

Transgenic crops are a poorly kept secret in university labs. The only reason that they do not crow about these achievements is that they fear ignorance-based backlash. I was surprised that the University of Nairobi recently held its Innovation Week and had no exhibitions about the crops it had pioneered.

The main reason we need to put in more money into transgenic and hybrid crops is that the productivity of our main food crop is failing. Kenya is already producing less than a third the global average per hectare of maize, and the numbers are falling further due to crop diseases. As our population grows, it will mean more hectares will be brought into agriculture to produce food, and we can kiss our forests and parks goodbye. GM offers us a way out.

The science is unimpeachable, the risks negligible, and the product has been tested extensively. The benefits are cheaper seeds, lower use of pesticides, higher yields and, in some cases, added minerals in your food.

The job of a society is to decide. We are ready for GM crops.

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I support Uhuru on sugar, but for a different reason

A LOT of criticism has been leveled against Mumias Sugar Company management over the dwindling fortunes of the firm. Sugarcane is a famously thirsty crop, and the question we should be asking ourselves is whether it can be grown in any meaningful scale without use of large rivers. The global picture of sugarcane production yields a definitive answer: No. Consider the top five sugarcane producers in the world: Brazil has the Amazon, China has the Yangtze, India has the Ganges, Thailand has the Mekong and Pakistan has the Indus. These are large rivers that can be seen from space and are thousands of kilometres long. The Mekong, Yangtze and the Ganges alone sustain almost half of humanity. Sugarcane thrives where rivers are the size of oceans. The truth is; Kenya does not have rivers on this scale and is unsuited to grow sugarcane in a meaningful amount. Uganda can grow sugarcane more efficiently than Kenya because it has the Nile, the world’s longest river. Even Ethiopia, with its Grand Dam projects, will end up producing a lot more sugar than we are currently. The decision to import sugar from Uganda is good because it is less taxing on the ecosystem to grow sugarcane there. We have to admit that the managers of Mumias were always fighting against geography. Blame Kidero for #Kiderodrums and #Kiderograss, not Mumias fortunes. There really wasn’t much he could do with the hand he was dealt.

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Our children are not as thick as previously reported; yay!

I have spent my time reading the KCPE 2014 report by Knec after going through an Uwezo analysis on student’s literacy and I am left with questions in my head. Uwezo’s annual report indicates that a majority of Kenyan primary pupils struggle with reading and writing, and do even worse in numeracy tests.

However, KCPE reports show that student’s marks form a bell curve, meaning that performance is evenly distributed.

The performance is not skewed towards the left or right, meaning that we do not have geniuses or dunderheads in schools. Collectively, Kenyan pupils get an undistinguished average, as you would expect anywhere.

If students are as illiterate as Uwezo claims, why are they doing so well in KCPE? I am not saying that our schools are perfect; I just think that Uwezo might be overstating the case. If the majority is not learning anything in school, I think KCSE would show it.

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FEEDBACK On whether Catholic Church has scientific backing to question safety of polio vaccine

FACTS, FACTS, FACTS! Waga, I would have said you were right had you explained why the Catholic Church is against the vaccine.

Explain, also, why the experts say that the church has no authority to question the World Health Organisation. Does the WHO act as God or practise the unquestionable theory as the Catholic dogmatic theology? Superstition – or whatever the term is – is neither here nor there; you decided to talk of this issue, do it like an expert but not as a journalist out to give a story with absolutely no moral authority to do so.

Lay down facts and, as a Kenyan, I will bow. Paul Njogu

ON THE SIDE OF MY CHURCH: Waga, I have just read your article and I think your main problem is not the polio vaccine. You have other issues that you are trying to use as a justification that the Catholic Church does not know the point it is trying to put across. For your information, the church’s moral teaching is to guide and teach us what is good for ourselves and walk with those who otherwise may not know anything regarding health.

Your claims can’t and will never be taken by anyone seriously. I am a Catholic and will follow every detail from my church. Florence Nyatichi

QUESTION VS OPPOSE: Waga, I have heard, and it is true, that some students fail exams because they do not answer the questions they are asked. This happens to be true for you and many other Kenyans on the polio vaccine issue.

The Catholic Church has never opposed the polio campaign; what it has done is question if the vaccine is laced with a compound that is used for prevention of conception.

Again, if you remember the facts correctly on the issue of the tetanus vaccine, the Catholic Church questioned why the drug was being administered to a given age group and not the whole population.

There is a difference between opposing and questioning. I recently watched a TV interview with the Director of Medical Services recently and he evaded the questions.

All he did was try to justify the exercise by saying children would die if not vaccinated. He did not show or prove that the said vaccine is free of the alleged birth control compound.

The Catholic Church is in the business of protecting life, not destroying it. When it questions certain issues, it is to ensure it plays its role.

Remember some time back the church kept away from politics and when things went wrong people asked why the church had not talked. The Catholic Church has a flock to guard and must do that even at the cost of being called paranoid.

And, by the way, this is not an offering-collecting church, but a service-rendering one. Kieti

A MISINFORMED WAG: Waga, your emotional diatribe is incredible. The debate was not about the polio vaccine, but its safety. This has been conveniently twisted but, luckily, we have a group like the Catholic Church that is willing to be the conscience of the nation and stand up to the government where sloppy medicine seems to be the order of the day. It is a pity that you do not use your pen to highlight the often gross inadequacies of some government health services.

You seem to have no respect for the unborn or human life, or any ethical approach to their care. In-vitro fertilisation always involves abortion as well as huge psychological trauma and has only a 15 per cent success rate; women are not being told the truth. There is also never a mention of the side effects of contraceptives by the media, which can be lethal.

If you had taken the trouble to read a statement by (Catholic) Bishops on July 28, you would have seen that the treatment of the church by the government over the past six months is akin to that of the Jews by the Gestapo. It is difficult to imagine how the Department of Health could have been so unscientific, unprofessional, uncooperative, and disrespectful to a group that runs 30 per cent of the health services of the country in the most outlying areas, and this on an issue where the safety of children is concerned. As for the rest of the article, it is too ignorant. I know Standard Six kids who could write a more just, scientific and honest article.

The Catholic Church has been providing quality health service everywhere in the world before any government was ever born.

It is the Number One health care worker on the planet. I would be happy to meet you to clarify some of your mistaken notions. Fr Conor Donnelly