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Editorial

Biotechnology

The current issue of AJFAND covers a wide range of issues and also has a commentary on biotechnology by  a world renown bio-philosopher, Prof Paul Thompson of the University of Toronto. Prof Thompson  and I have known each other for close to a decade and  have exchanged views on this issue to great length. Further, I have made arrangements for him to give lectures at the University of Nairobi and at Masinde Muliro University in Kenya.

Lectures  have been attend by curious students and lecturers.What is important for me here is that all evidence from scientific research and enquiry need to be shared as widely as possible with both the lay public and across professions.Prof Thompson has visited Kenya with his wife Jennifer each year for 3 years. In addition to giving lectures, the couple spend time interacting with my rural farming community.

We visit schools and homes and talk with the farmers, both men and women, and we make sure both sides get to understand community dynamics and challenges faced in trying to meet family food needs.

For a continent which is always food insecure, with majority of the poor consuming less that two thirds of the needed calories, one would expect governments to support science and technologies that could improve the situation.I am also aware that there was a time when we used to trust everything scientists told us.Now, maybe because of greater literacy and awareness, everyone is asking questions. It is important to ask questions because then scientists will realise that they cannot just take consumers for granted.On the other hand, asking questions needs to lead us to greater understanding of the issues in question and enable us to make some progress.

Prof Thompson has invested time and his intellectual resource in trying to understand the science of biotechnology and the varying views around it.He has gone further to examine the risks associated with the technology and to make some recommendations as to how Africa as a whole should go regarding what sometimes becomes a very emotive subject.

The issue of child health and nutritional status has also been covered in this issue 25 of AJFAND and  that of  micronutrient content of food aid  given to refugees in sub-Saharn Africa. Each one of the papers essentially addresses a challenge currently faced  by Africa.What is coming out clearly is that we need to continue looking for answers to get most of the African population  out of abject poverty and the indignity of hunger and malnutrition. Modern technology adoption has been a problem in Africa and this has affected the pace of development in the agricultural sector. For example the debate on biotechnology and whether Africa should accept its application continues to rage on. There is nothing wrong with people holding their own views about an issue as emotive as genetic modification of organisms, so long as such views are formed on the basis of evidence.There are many applications for biotechnology and not just transgenic.An understanding of what biotechnology has to offer in a very broad sense would lead to different kinds of decisions likely to help human health. I am personally aware that Kenya’s drought events have been on the increase over the past 4 decades paralleled by an upward trend in food imports and hunger events. No one technology can be regarded as a magic bullet, not even biotechnology.Clearly, however, sound science is what the whole world relies on to come up with answers to address various challenges facing humans. Such challenges for Africa include food  insecurity on top of the list. Transgenic technology is part of biotechnology and there are a number of non emotive biotechnological procedures which are ignored and get swallowed up by the controversies surrounding GMOs.

Kenya continues to rely heavily on cereal imports because production falls way below demand.
This year alone, hundreds of thousands of tons of maize were damaged due to poor post harvest handling, while there are conflicting reports from different governement agencies regarding 6000 tons of maize sitting at the port of Mombasa while many Kenyans go hungry.This issue raises many questions: was the maize truly unfit for human consumption or was it just because it was suspected to be GMO?Apparently 2 certification agencies were used to test the maize and KEPHIS ( Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services) is mentioned ; one wonders whether these agencies truly have the capacity or mandate to test cereals  in this state. Kenya Bureau of Standards was also mentioned and one wonders whether the Kenya Bureau of Standards too has the capacity to undertake the requisite testing for GMOs.

Kenya recently passed the Biosafety legislation and with this tool, governement agencies and any other parties can use its provisions to carry out activities that can both safeguard human health and promote science.

Many credible organizations including International Food Policy Research Institute ( IFPRI) do  encourage greater dialogue and more proactive engagement to promote judicious use of biotechnogy to benefit Africa instead of always being cautionary and scaring farmers and consumers about the benefits of biotechnology. It is better to make decisions from a point of knowldge and this is exactly the message in Prof Thompson’s commentary.Let Africa not be left behind  in science and technology.

By Ruth Oniang'o
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND

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