By EA Trade Review Reporter
Recent import ban of GMO foods by the Kenyan government as well as mandatory labeling of such foods is likely to affect trade in grains within the East African Community (EAC).
Trade experts as well scientists supporting the Genetic Modification technology argue that the stringent measures taken by the region’s largest economy that also acts as a transit corridor to Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi will have a spillover effect in the region that is already struggling with food deficit.
In November last year, Kenya’s former public health minister Mrs Beth Mugo imposed an import on GMO foods though the outgoing agriculture permanent secretary Dr Romano Kiome recently rubbished the ban saying it was political and lacked legal basis.
Scientist and maize breeder Mr Murenga Mwimali says while the Biosafety Act 2009 and import regulations allow importation of GMOs, on the contrary the labeling regulations that were sneaked in without adequate consultations by stakeholders make the process very complicated.
“Variation in labelling regulations among countries imply that for two countries with different regimes to trade without extra costs, unlabeled GM products can only flow from countries with more stringent labelling to those with more liberal labelling, “ he says.
By 2012, Kenya was developing and testing GM crops in maize, cotton, cassava, sweet potatoes, pigeon peas and sorghum. Sorghum has been approved for contained greenhouse trials by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA).
In Uganda, maize, bananas, cassava, cotton and sweet potatoes are undergoing tests. Sweet potatoes are under contained greenhouse trials.
Despite having some of the most liberal biotechnology laws, Tanzania is still strongly opposed to GMS.
“To Kenyan traders, mandatory labelling may lead to higher costs of locally produced GM products hence kill the much needed competitive advantage.”
According to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) that regulates the sub-sector, GM commodities would have to be transported, stored and processed separately to ensure less than one per cent content above which labelling has to be done. That means any product with more than one per cent GM content must adhere to stringent labelling code.
“In the Kenyan case where majority of the population rely on the market for food supply, affordability of the food is essential in meeting the “accessibility” component of the food security objective,” says Mwimali.
“Mandatory labelling as required in the current Biosafety labelling regulations is likely to increase production costs by 11-12 per cent as observed in the Philippines. Studies show that such an increase in cost of production increases food prices by at least 10 per cent.”
Under the rules, importers of GMO products shall apply to NBA and specify the species or identify the amount of the GM proposed to be imported and its intended purpose. Upon receiving the application, NBA then assesses all risks.
According to the Biosafety Act, the application takes between 90 and 150 days to be approved and if application is approved, millers have to proceed and comply with the labeling regulations before placing the product on the market for sale.
According to scientists John Komen and David Wafula, the disconnect between the national biotechnology policies and biosafety laws and regulations should be addressed urgently.
“The national biotechnology policies of the East African countries generally contain policy statements that recognize the potential contribution of modern biotechnology for meeting socio-economic development goals,” they say in their report Trade and Tribulations, an evaluation of trade barriers to the adoption of GM crops in the EAC.
“In contrast, their biosafety regulations sometimes have stringent provisions that will undermine efforts to meet broader development and food security goals.”
They say some government measures that are sometimes taken regarding GMOs contradict national policies and laws, such as import bans on GM commodities. Some of these decisions lead to price hikes for imported cereals and have negative impact on the provision of emergency food aid.
However, sources say most policymakers in EAC fear that embracing GMO foods fully would jeopardize their export market for the agricultural products which is the GM-sensitive European Union (EU).
“Several African countries have been preoccupied with the notion that the adoption of GM crops would attract a wholesale rejection of agricultural exports by importing countries in the western world especially by the European countries,” say the scientists.
“The dilemma within policymaking circles has been to harness the potential benefits of GM crops while preserving trade interests and niche markets.”
They argue that such fears are unfounded considering that most of the GM crops currently being considering for commercialization within the EAC such as maize, cotton and cassava are not primary commodities exported to the EU.
Traditional exports to the EU from the EAC include tea, coffee and horticultural products like flowers which are not under GM research globally. Instead, most of the affected crops are traded within the EAC and the Comesa region with Kenya emerging as the biggest maize importer.
“Because the lion’s share of agricultural exports goes to other countries in the region, a common approach to and, ideally, harmonized policies towards imports of GM commodities will be essential,” they say.
However, both traders and scientists now face stiff penalties should they violate the regulations. For example under the NBA regulations unauthorized importation would make the importer liable to a sentence of a jail term of 10 years or a fine of KSh20 million ($230,000) or both.
According to Mwimali, one central argument in favor of labeling GM foods is that it is important for consumers to have a choice in consuming or avoiding products made with GM ingredients.
He says labelling regulations prohibit importation from countries that do not have labelling requirements and that traceability that only targets GMOs is discriminatory and unfair to biotechnology development.
“A primary argument against labeling is that there are no proven health risks surrounding GM foods, while labels seem to imply such hazards,” he says.
“By contrast, In the United States and other developed economies, there are no mandatory labeling requirements in place. It is very difficult to test foods to ensure that those that are considered "GM free" are actually "free" of GM materials.”
However, he says labeling respects the opinion of those not wanting to consume GM foods because there are some people who are highly opposed to consuming GM foods and the government must respect that opinion.