NAIROBI, Kenya—In the sprawling hills of the Kangundo district in Kenya’s Eastern Province, just a few hours outside of capital city Nairobi, Fred Kiambaa has been farming the same small, steep plot of land for more than 20 years.
Born and raised just outside Kathiini Village in Kangundo, Kiambaa knows the ups and downs of agriculture in this semi-arid region. He walks up a set of switchbacks to Kangundo’s plateaus to tend his fields each morning and seldom travels further than a few miles from his plot.
Right now, all that remains of his maize crop are rows of dry husks. Harvest season finished just two weeks ago, and the haul was meager this time around.
“Water is the big problem, it’s always water. We have many boreholes, but when there is no rain, it’s still difficult,” he said.
Kiambaa and his wife, Mary, only harvested 440 pounds of maize this season, compared to their usual 2,200. They have six children, meaning there will be many lean months before the next harvest, and worse: Though March is Kenya’s rainiest month, it’s been mostly dry so far.
“The rain surely is not coming well this year. Rain is the key. We can only pray,” he said.
Farmers like Kiambaa are central to a push to deploy genetically modified (GM) technology within Kenya. In recent years, donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested millions of dollars into researching, developing and promoting GM technology, including drought-resistant maize, within the country — and have found a great deal of success in doing so through partnerships with local NGOs and government bodies.
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), a semi-autonomous government research institution, recently announced that after years of trials, genetically modified drought-resistant maize seeds will be available to Kenyan farmers within the next five years. Trial GM drought-resistant cotton crops are already growing in Kidoko, 240 miles southeast of Nairobi.
Researchers and lobbyists argue that in a country so frequently stricken by food shortages, scientific advancements can put food into hungry bellies. Drought-resistant seeds and vitamin-enriched crops could be agricultural game changers, they say.
But serious concerns about viability, corporate dependency and health effects linger — even while leading research firms and NGOs do their best to smooth them over.
Agriculture dominates Kenya’s economy, although more than 80 percent of its land is too dry and infertile for efficient cultivation. Kenya is the second largest seed consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nairobi is a well-known hub for agricultural research. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, farming is the largest contributor to Kenya’s gross domestic product, and 75 percent of Kenyans made their living by farming in 2006.
Half of the country’s total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence production — meaning farms like Kiambaa’s, where nothing is sold and everything is consumed.
On top of that, the country is still reeling from the worst drought in half a century, which affected an estimated 13 million people across the Horn of Africa in 2011. Kenya is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, housing 450,000 Somalis fleeing violence and famine, increasing the pressure to deal with food security challenges.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently called on parliament to assist the estimated 4.8 million Kenyans, in a country of about 40 million, who still rely on government food supports, as analysts predict that this year’s rainy season will be insufficient to guarantee food security.
“The situation is not good… Arid and semi-arid regions have not recovered from the drought,” Odinga said.
At the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), a massive NGO working on GM research and development in partnership with KARI, Regulatory Affairs Manager Dr. Francis Nang’ayo says GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-genetically modified foods and should be embraced as a solution to persistent drought and hunger.
In 2008, the AATF received a $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This partnership involved the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and American seed giant Monsanto.
In 2005, the Water-Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program became one of the first main partners in a program aimed at developing drought-resistant maize for small-scale African farmers. Monsanto promised to provide seeds for free. The Gates Foundation claimed at the time that biotechnology and GM crops would help end poverty and food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Gates Foundation had invested $27.6 million in Monsanto shares.
Donors had been investing millions in KARI for decades in an effort to develop seeds that would produce pest- and disease-resistant plants and produce higher yields. Monsanto promised results, with the goal of distributing its seeds to small-scale farmers across Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
Since then WEMA’s African partners have made major strides in bringing GM crops to Kenya, most notably when KARI announced in March that it is set to introduce genetically modified maize to farmers’ fields by 2017. Until 2008, South Africa had been the only country using GM technology. Now Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana are researching GM seeds and growing trial crops of cotton, maize and sorghum.
“Five years ago it was only South Africa that had a clear policy. Since then a number of countries have put their acts together by publishing policies on GM technology laws. In Kenya we’re moving on to create institutional mechanisms,” said Dr. Nang’ayo.
But Nang’ayo and his team face several challenges. Popular opinion on the technology is deeply divided in Kenya, in large part due to suspicions about the giant foreign corporations that control it.
Monsanto-patented seeds are usually costly, which has led to numerous accusations of exploitation and contemporary colonialism. But how long will these particular strains of seeds last? What are the guarantees? Critics fear dependence on corporate fertilizers and pesticides, the emergence of super-weeds and pests that can no longer repel GM varieties, and terminator seeds that only last for one planting season.
At Seattle’s AGRA Watch, a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice, director Heather Day said there aren’t enough questions being asked about introducing GM technology to developing countries.
“Our campaign started because of our concern about the Gates Foundation’s influence on agriculture and the lack of transparency and accountability. We also have ecological concerns, in terms of food sovereignty and farmers’ ability to control their food system. We need to be concerned about the industrialization of the agricultural system,” she said.
AGRA Watch’s objective is to monitor and question the Gates Foundation’s push for a “green revolution” in Africa.
Monsanto has promised an indefinite supply of royalty-free seeds for this project, but Day said the pitfalls have the potential to devastate the continent’s agriculture.
“Genetically modified crops actually haven’t been that successful,” Day said. “We’ve seen massive crop failure in South Africa, and farmers there couldn’t get financial remedies or compensation for their losses. There’s genetic resistance and super-pests, these things are happening now, and it’s not surprising. It’s what you would expect from an ecological standpoint.”
The horror stories are real — in India, for example, farmers who purchased Bollgard I cotton seeds from 2007 to 2009 wound up spending four times the price of regular seeds, and paying dearly for it. It was believed that Monsanto’s patented GM seeds would be resistant to pink bollworms, which were destroying cotton crops across swaths of India, but by 2010 Monsanto officials were forced to admit that the seed had failed and a newer breed of far more aggressive pests had emerged. The solution? Bollgard II, an even stronger GM cotton seed.
As of December 2011, Monsanto was actively promoting the latest Bollgard III cotton seed, stronger than ever before. Pesticide spending in India skyrocketed between 2007 and 2009, forcing thousands of farmers into crushing debt, and hundreds more into giving up their land. Some media outlets later drew a connection between the Bollgard debacle and a rash of suicides across farms that had purchased the seeds.
Kenya is a country where land-grabbing is all too common, be it on the coast to make way for new tourist resorts, or in Nairobi, where slum demolitions left hundreds homeless when the government bulldozed several apartment buildings to reclaim an area near the Moi Air Base.
Farmers here are skeptical of risking everything for a few seasons of higher yields. In Kangundo, Kiambaa said he would try GM technology if it was a matter of life or death — but he is wary.
Kiambaa uses the Katumani breed of maize, a widely available seed that is reasonably drought-tolerant and affordable. Higher yields are tempting, of course, but Kiambaa said he doesn’t want to chance his livelihood on a foreign corporation. While his family has been on the land for decades now, Kiambaa said they didn’t get to farm it until British colonialists returned it to local farmers. He pointed out trees that line the steep hillside, planted by the British.
“It’s because of Mzungus that we have charcoal,” he said, smiling wryly.
After the last harvest, Kiambaa can’t even afford to use Kenya’s standard DAP fertilizer, which costs 59 cents per pound. Instead, he has a lone cow tied to a post in his fields.
“This provides the fertilizer we need. We can’t afford anything else. The maize yield could have been much better, but we know our plants will grow each year. It is better we keep it the way it is. My family has been on this land for 100 years. We have always survived,” he said.
At the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), CEO Willy Tonui claims media hysteria and inaccurate reporting are to blame for resistance to GM technology, arguing the NBA maintains stringent guidelines about GM seeds in Kenya. Referring to the plans to allow GM maize seeds in by 2017, Tonui said, “The National Biosafety Authority does not have the mandate to introduce GM maize or any other crop into Kenya. We only review applications that are submitted to the authority. To date, the authority has not received any application on commercial release of GM maize or any other crop.”
Anne Maina, advocacy coordinator for the African Biodiversity Network (ABN), a coalition of 65 Kenyan farming organizations, said that’s not a good enough answer.
“Who’s controlling the industry?” she asked. “If you are going to talk to the National Biosafety Authority, they’ll tell you the information is available, but there is a confidential business information clause where whoever is controlling the industry is not held accountable. The level of secrecy and lack of transparency is unacceptable.”
The ABN has actively lobbied the government since 2004 to crack down on GM technology slowly filtering into Kenya, with some measure of success. A 2009 Biosafety Act required all GM imports to pass stringent government standards before entering the country.
Maina recognizes the uphill battle she’s facing.
“Our public research institutions must shift their focus back to farmers’ needs,” she told The Indypendent, “rather than support the agenda of agribusiness, which is to colonize our food and seed chain. We believe that the patenting of seed is deeply unethical and dangerous.”
Joan Baxter is a journalist who has spent years reporting on climate change and agriculture in Africa. Reporting now from Sierra Leone, Baxter was quick to point out that even if a farmer chooses not to use GM technology, it won’t guarantee crop safety.
“Farmers are always at risk of contamination from GM seeds. That has been shown in North America. The farmers [in Africa] may lose their own seeds, perhaps be given GM seeds for a year or two, then have to purchase them and be stuck in the trap and in debt,” she said.
Like Maina, Baxter sees a problem in how GM technology is being marketed, and slowly introduced, into African countries, under the guise of ending famine. With climate change becoming an increasingly influential factor in the GM debate, Baxter said companies claiming to help are only looking for profit.
“Basically this is disaster capitalism. The disaster of hunger and drought, climate change and policy-related, is now a profit opportunity for Monsanto and Syngenta. The Gates Foundation buying shares in Monsanto tells you what the real agenda is: To get GMOs in Africa,” she said.
In 2010, NBA’s CEO resigned after it was revealed that 280,000 tonnes of GM maize had found its way into Kenya from South Africa through the Port of Mombasa.
Farmers mobilized en masse after the Dreyfus scandal (named for the South African company responsible for shipping the seeds) was revealed, marching on Parliament to demand an end to secret imports. After the most recent GM announcement, however, there were no protests. The long rains that would ensure a good yield haven’t come. The drought may continue.
Added to the potential problems with GM technology are health risks—the strains of maize that were illegally imported in 2010 had been deemed unsafe for children and the elderly. Maina also worries about animal feeding trials that showed damage to liver, kidney and pancreas, effects on fertility, and stomach bleeding in livestock that has consumed GM feed. A more recent study carried out on pregnant women in Canada found genetically modified insecticidal proteins in their blood streams and in that of their unborn children, despite assurances from scientists that it wasn’t possible.
The political scandal that erupted after 2010’s illegal imports brought GM technology into the forefront of Kenyan public debate, but last year’s massive drought has shifted public and political discourse. The ABN doesn’t have a $47 million grant to keep it going, and the pressures it faces from politicians and corporations, now waging their own propaganda war, are overwhelming.
At the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health in Toronto, researchers recently released a report titled “Factors in the adoption and development of agro-biotechnology in sub-Saharan Africa.” The report, which was financed by a grant by the Gates Foundation, came to the conclusion that “poor communication is affecting agbiotech adoption,” and that “widespread dissemination of information at the grassroots level and can spread misinformation and create extensive public concern and distrust for agbiotech initiatives.”
Lead researcher Obidimma Ezezika declined to comment on Monsanto’s involvement with GM technology, and denied that his team was creating corporate propaganda.
“I think it is important to actively and soberly engage in the debate by offering facts to the policy makers, media and public on ag-biotech which will dispel fears and anxieties,” he told The Indypendent.
The mounting evidence, health questions and political scandals all mean Kenya would be wisest to take a step back before jumping on board the GM train, says Maina.
“Our key concern is that the development of insecticides and pesticides is primarily the emergence of companies getting farmers to buy highly toxic chemicals, which they will become totally dependent on. We don’t yet know the extent of the health risks posed, nor how we are expected to trust companies that have a record of putting small farmers out of business. It is time for sober second thought,” she said.