Kenyans consuming genetically modified foods despite import ban – study

By Gatonye Gathura

A gene used to develop genetically modified maize, soy and rice has been traced in Kenyans despite an existing ban on GMO imports.

The gene Cry1Ab is derived from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which occurs naturally in soil and used to modify maize so that it can poison pests such as the stem borer.

Scientists from Case Western Reserve University, US express surprise that the gene was found in in Kenyans, where GMOs are not grown for consumption and importation is illegal.

The study published in the journal Food and Agriculture Immunology in April had tested for the gene in 300 individuals from Kenya, US and Papua New Guinea.

It recorded the presence of the gene in 20 per cent of the participants most of these not surprisingly from the US, a major producer and exporter of GM foods.

“We hypothesize that the ingestion of Cry1Ab proteins from GM crops is the most likely source of exposure to the gene,” says the study.

The US researchers went further to rule out the possibility of the individuals having picked the gene from dust particles or other environmental pollutants including from several commercial pesticides.

The Americans say the identified Cry1Ab gene was in a version (activated) possible from consuming GM foods but could not tell how it got into Kenyans where modified products are banned.

But the head of the National Biosafety Agency in Kenya Willy Tunoi has dismissed the study saying locals may have picked the gene from the environment.

“The study offers no evidence that the participants had picked the gene from consuming GMO food and is normal for the human immune system to respond to environmental challenges,” said Tonui.

Currently government agencies are involved in a tussle over a recent approval allowing the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) to carry out the first open-air field trials of GM maize in the country.

The trials of the US seed giant Monsanto’s Bt maize (MON 810) which contains the Cry1Ab gene had been approved by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) and would have put GMOs maize just one-step away from commercialization in Kenya.

The approval has since been cancelled by the Cabinet Secretary for Health Cleopa Mailu arguing that  a 2012 Cabinet ban on GMOs in Kenya still stands because their implication on human and the environment are yet to be determined.

But locally the existing restrictions do not seem to protect Kenyans from GMO food imports and consumption. For example, recently the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) warned traders over the unauthorized importation of GMO into the country.

“Contrary to the law and an existing ban, the authority has come across unauthorized importation of certain brand of cornflakes, cereals, popcorns and other corn-based products declared to contain GMOs,” the authority had warned in a public notice.

A report presented to the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service in 2010 had showed Kenya had littler control over the entry of GMO foods into the country especially through food shortages like now.

The report said of 11 vessels that brought maize to Mombasa between 2008 and 2009, five had been contaminated with GMO grains.

In the current study the US researchers were however not investigating whether the gene is harmful to consumers of modified foods but testing a procedure for detecting Cry1Ab in humans.

While agriculture researchers in Kenya, science activists and donors seems determined to push for the  importation and local production of GMOs the current government seems determined to keep transgenic foods away.

During a food security forum organized by NTV earlier this month the CS Agriculture Willy Bett said Kenya is not yet ready to totally adopt food biotechnology.

Bett may have partially been informed by a local event at the KALRO field trial grounds at Alupe in Busia County.

The trials involved altering the cassava tuber with a gene found in the carrot family to make it more nutritious with Vitamin A crucial for children.

Reports of the trials presented in the journal 3 Biotech by researchers from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and the KALRO showed the gene meant to have been restricted to the roots had accidentally traveled all the way to the leaves.

The study reports the possible leakage of GM genes and suggest further analysis whether the traveling of these genes to the leaves had affected other nutrients in the crop including toxins such as cyanide.