Mr. President, farmers don’t need GM cotton

By Emmanuel Atamba

During the inauguration of the new Rivatex Centre at Moi University, President Kenyatta reiterated his government’s commitment to honor and keep its word to the people.

The reopening of Rivatex, the once giant textile firm, is no doubt a laudable initiative and investment towards economic growth. Rivatex Centre is expected to employ more than 3,000 youths and impact more than 100,000 farmers who will be supplying it with cotton fiber.

The revamped Rivatex also signifies the government’s commitment to building robust and competitive local production whilst encouraging investment into the sector. Many companies already in the apparel industry could supply high quality, locally produced fabric. 

However, Rivatex management pointed out that the missing link to making the project successful, is low supply of raw material – cotton fiber from farmers. Speakers attributed this to lack of technical know-how, capacity and “poor varieties.”

But, what are the government’s plans to ensure that farmers are in a good position to supply cotton fiber and get a share of this hot, newly baked cake? One would expect improved extension services; storage facilities; price regulation and contracting to ensure fair and stable prices. It appears the government is offering none of these. Instead, farmers are likely to be offered expensive GMO cotton seeds (Bt Cotton) produced by the giant multinational company, Monsanto.

It is important to note that the abbreviation, “Bt” was corrupted at the inauguration ceremony to mean biotechnology cotton. This is incorrect. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a naturally occurring bacteria that produces a toxin that kills pests, including cotton leaf worm. Pest management can be easily controlled through functional biodiversity, and integrated organic practices.

Genes from the bacteria are infused into the cotton genome in the lab at molecular level. This process is called genetic modification and falls within the broader family of biotechnology sciences but has a clear distinction from other biotechnology practices and technologies. It is also falsely argued that it is a form of breeding. It is important that Kenyans understand what the government is proposing here: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

In the rush to prescribe Bt Cotton as the silver bullet to cotton production problems, the president, in a rather unclear directive, urged counties to “support” farmers. The central government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, should provide clearer guidance to county governments on the agricultural sector’s development. Additionally, there is a need to monitor county interventions to ensure accountability. There is a need to create synergies between county and national programs, such as reviving the cotton sector.

The biggest mistake Kenya could ever make, is to believe that the commercialization of Bt Cotton is the “direct intervention” to solve the problems of farmers and their livelihoods. GMO cotton has been commercialized in few other African countries and has failed to meet its much hyped efficiency and production potential.

Burkina Faso and South Africa are illustrative of the fact that GMOs promote a form of agriculture that throws farmers into long-term dependencies, undermines critical biodiversity and, by promoting large-scale industrial infrastructure, drives millions into poverty.

Kenyans have a right to know and understand more about this technology. Kenyans have a right to participate meaningfully in the decision on whether to allow GMOs on our farms and plates.

Members of the public are still unsure about GMOs. Therefore, public participation processes should be followed to ensure that Kenyans know the applicants behind Bt Maize and Bt Cotton and the results of risk assessments currently underway in the country. GMO cotton will end up on our plates, because it is used to make cottonseed oil and cotton seed cake (used for animal feed).

Notably, seed varieties under trial are not developed in Kenya and remain the intellectual property of Monsanto. Commercialization of this technology serves the interest of the company and not our farmers.

We cannot talk about sustainable livelihoods and at the same time undermine the ability of farmers to own, use and freely breed indigenous seeds. Locally produced seeds, that are better adapted to our environment, allow farmers to mitigate against the effects of climate change and increasingly unpredictable market trends.

With real fears and uncertainties among Kenyans, there is an urgent need for the government, through its research institutions and mandated authorities, to investigate the short and long-term impacts of GMO cotton, specific to the Kenyan context. Despite ongoing research and without certainty of the outcomes, the best actions the government can take are to give farmers access to conventional seeds; provide reliable extension services; and ensure proper management of buying agreements – of non GM varieties – with manufacturers.

Emmanuel Atamba is the ambassador for the Route to Food Initiative and can be reached at atamba@routetofood.org

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