The dust seems to have settled on the suitability or otherwise of genetically modified foods but that does not mean the debate is over. I discovered this as I recently sat through a lively discussion with a group of social media-savvy anti-GMO opponents.
Though not farmers, they align themselves with those who plant “original” seeds, practise mixed cropping and don’t use farm chemicals. They view pro-GMO farmers as villains who, in cahoots with multinational agricultural firms, will sacrifice people’s health and the environment for profit.
Trade CS Moses Kuria’s infamous comment on GMOs convinced them they are the last defence for food consumers. So, when I edgewise mentioned that I am a pro-GMO farmer, they could only gasp in shock.
GMO proponents should enter this discourse with sobriety, knowing it is not the first time in Kenya that there is scepticism in the seeds science.
Post-Independence smallholder farmers who planted treated hybrid maize that came in packets labelled “Poison, Unfit for Human Consumption” faced similar resistance from people who took the safety label to its literal meaning. But their resilience and resulting high farm yields helped them win over their opponents. My mother (RIP), with little education, was in this pioneer group. So it is in my genes to adapt to new farming methods.
Therefore, GMO farmers, we need to put our farming tools down for safety (pun intended), own our narrative and explain that we are not villains but people seeking help in a job that is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Part of this help is in getting seeds that are high-yielding, resistant to pests and diseases, have lower production costs and can withstand adverse climatic conditions.
We can trust science to give us these seeds—even though they label them “GMO”, no different than medicines. This option has a short turnaround, though it will still take years. Alternatively, we can leave our fate to evolution, which would give us the super seeds after thousands of years. But with a growing population and an ever-changing climate, we don’t have the luxury of time, and that is why food production aligns itself with science.
For those who fear that GMO farming will result in wanton destruction of the environment, peace! Because of the land tenure system in Kenya, farmers are literally “locked” in their farms. It is, therefore, difficult to use land as a disposable item— if you destroy one piece with bad farming habits, you can easily move to a better one at no cost. So, farmers show love to their farms by embracing concepts such as conservation tillage, which is gentle to the land and is likely to give a high yield.
Similarly, on the use of farm chemicals, farmers are aware that the cost of chemicals can eat into their profits. They thus use a cost/benefit analysis before using a farm chemical. And with manual labour unreliable, ineffective and expensive, chemical weed control is the preferred option for most farmers.
The claim of multinationals wanting to exploit farmers by forcing them to buy seeds is a fallacy. Since farmers routinely buy certified seeds,as long as they are guaranteed a high germination percentage, purity, high field performance and yields. Similarly, dairy farmers pay for superior genetics that can guarantee them high milk yield. What would help is legislation to reduce taxation on farm inputs.
Lastly, it would be a mistake to view GMO seeds as the panacea for all the food production challenges.