GMOs on the spotlight in East Africa again

What you need to know:

  • GMO products such as crops are those which have new DNA (genes) inserted from the same or unrelated organism using genetic engineering methods.
  • Opinions are on whether the EAC partner states should harmonise their policies and laws on GMOs.

Arusha. Controversies surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the East Africa Community (EAC) bloc are in the spotlight once again.

Regional lawmakers are visiting the partner states to assess existing policies and laws before advising the governments on the best ways to embrace the technology.

The recommendations by members of the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) will be presented to higher organs of the EAC for appropriate advice.

Members of the regional Assembly kick-started their assessment in six of the eight EAC member states with a general overview of GMO research status in each country.

GMO products such as crops are those which have new DNA (genes) inserted from the same or unrelated organism using genetic engineering methods, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

These genes, FAO says, confer beneficial traits such as pest resistance, ability to grow in extreme and unfavourable conditions and increased nutrient levels among others.

Besides the legal frameworks on GMOs, the MPs will assess the need for GMO food products in the partner states and whether there are countries where they are produced.

Also on the spotlight will be on companies registered within East Africa and which deal with GMO food products and if their activities were regulated.

Opinions are on whether the EAC partner states should harmonise their policies and laws on GMOs and finally what the regional bloc should do about the controversial technology.

According to a statement issued by Eala on Thursday, countries visited by the MPs whose tour ended today (Friday) were Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and South Sudan.

The week-long mission skipped two partner states, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia which joined the EAC in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

The assessment involved members of the Eala Committee on Agriculture, Tourism and Natural Resources, one of the oversight committees of the regional Assembly.

"The main objective of this activity is to assess policies and laws of partner states on GMO and to make appropriate recommendations to the Council of Ministers on this matter," Eala statement further says.

The oversight activities are in line with the EAC Treaty clause Cooperation, Agriculture and Rural Development's aims at achieving food security and rationalising agricultural production.

Food security will also be attained through increased agricultural production, processing and marketing, thus eliminating hunger within the region.

Eala says it undertook the assessment due to food challenges facing the region amid ongoing global debate with regard to GMOs.

During their mission, members of the Committee interacted with the relevant stakeholders from both the public and private sectors on appropriate actions to be taken on the technology.

Members of the Committee indicated that one of the methods to increase food production in the EAC was through the use of available technologies that will result in higher farm yields.

In several parts of the world, GMOs or agricultural biotechnology is one of the technologies being used to increase food production but this has not been embraced in the EAC region.

The Committee chairperson, Ms Françoise Uwumukiza said in Kigali that the EAC must rise to the challenge to get adequate, nutritious and safe goods through modern technologies.

This will enable the region to feed its fast-growing population and address the issue of malnutrition among its population, including stunting affecting some of its children.

She said Eala members want to understand the position of EAC member states regarding GMO adoption, “by analysing their policies and laws and help the region make a well-informed decision in line with food security achievement.”

This is the second time in less than two years where Eala has been forced to debate GMOs which has often divided the August House down the middle.

A hot debate ensued in December 2022 when the MPs differed on the technology, with some saying it threatened the health of the people with others insisting that its benefits should be explored.

Others maintained that because the technology was new, it should be regulated because they considered the perceived risks to be too minimal.

The consensus was, however, that the EAC partner states should be cautious on whatever pathway they took with regards to the technology since it has its benefits and drawbacks.

In late 2022, Kenya lifted the ban on GMOs which was imposed in 2012 in order to address the food crisis occasioned by severe drought.

President William Ruto ignored calls for reversal of his executive order from the opposition, local cereal traders and a section of scientists to lift the ban allowing importation of GMO maize.

Immediately after the lifting of the ban on GMO maize imports in October last year, Tanzania vowed to remain on guard against any GMO product.

The minister for Agriculture, Hussein Bashe directed that Tanzania was not ready to embrace the technology with its entire bio-economy value chain; agriculture, forestry, livestock and the like.

There was no need for the country to adopt and commercialise GMOs after the successful rollout of hybrid and open-pollinated crops.

Nevertheless, he said, matters pertaining to biotechnology are still being researched in the country "for better understanding and academic purpose."

The debate on GMO trials in Tanzania has taken turns and twists over the years, often dividing both the experts and politicians over legal technicalities and safety concerns.

It was until the end of 2021 that the government made the country's stand public when it suspended GMO seed research trials and scrutiny on imported genetically engineered seeds.

The order made by the then agriculture minister, Prof Adolf Mkenda got a muted nod from the seed stakeholders in Arusha and other northern regions.

A farmers' network called Mviwata Arusha insisted that Tanzania should ditch the international protocols pertaining to GMO seeds on grounds they don't serve the national interests.