The Kenyan government has made major advancements in adopting genetically modified (GM) crops into the federal market, as a step forward towards achieving the Big 4 Agenda. The country’s economic development blueprint, launched by current President Uhuru Kenyatta, consists of the following main pillars: food security, affordable housing, manufacturing, and affordable healthcare. Through biotechnology applications, President Kenyatta anticipates that GM crops will significantly contribute to addressing the government’s development plan, specifically towards food insecurity and manufacturing. 

However, in the past, Kenya’s approach towards GM food and feed were restrictive. In 2012, former president Mwai Kibaki placed a ban on all GMO imports until the country was able to certify that they have no negative impact on people’s health. The cabinet press stated that there was a “lack of sufficient information on the public health impact of such [modified] foods,” and added that the ban would remain in effect until there was adequate information proving that GMO foods are not a danger to public health.

The ban was prompted by a study publication issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology published the same year. The study indicated that rats fed GMO foods developed cancer, and it highlighted the “truth and toxicity” of GM products. Food and Chemical Toxicology eventually retracted the article due to poor methodology and flaws. Even so, the publication inflicted serious damage to the development of GMOs and fueled anti-GMO sentiment amongst Kenya and other countries.

There were mixed opinions regarding the GMO ban passed. National Biosafety Authority (NBA) board chair, Miriam Kinyaa, stated that biotechnology research in Kenya would continue, as the ban did not affect existing research and development activities. She added that researchers would continue to provide the government with information regarding GMO safety, so that a possible review could take place. 

On the other hand, Richard Okoth, a biotechnology scientist at Kenyatta University, felt that the government was in a contradictory position, as they imposed a ban but continued to fund biotech research. “The essence of GMO research is to provide a product that can complement efforts towards food security. This ban will discourage research, as the product for which the research is being conducted has been placed on import ban,” said Okoth.

The ban on importing GMO foods remained until 2019, at which point the government began to encourage GMO research and approved the cultivation of GMO cotton. After five years of field trials, the commercialization of Bt cotton, a genetically modified pest-resistant cotton which produces an insecticide to combat bollworms, was approved on 19 December 2019. Dr. Charles Waturu, the principal researcher on Bt cotton at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), said, “The general ban was not removed, but other crops will go through because the cabinet memo says that other GMOs will be considered on a case by case basis, meaning that the Cabinet is removing the ban essentially without mentioning it.” He added, “This has paved the way for other [GM] crops. Despite the ban, it means other applications will go through.” 

The Kenyan government hoped that growing GMO cotton would help revive the domestic textile industry. In 2020, cotton production was about 6 096 281 kg, which was well below the 10 668 492 kg produced in 2010. It was inadequate to meet the 43 544 867 kg domestic demand for cotton; thus, the country relied on large-scale imports. 

According to the President’s Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU), Bt cotton commercial farming aimed to ensure farmers earned more from crop production. It was also a step forward towards the manufacturing goal of the Agenda, as Kenya seeked to establish itself as a regional leader in apparel and textile production.

During the launch, the country’s Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Peter Munya, revealed that the target was to have over 200 000 acres of land used for commercial Bt cotton cultivation by 2022. This would, in return, create over 25 000 jobs for Kenyans. “These job opportunities will be in cultivation, processing or trading in locally manufactured garments and clothes,” said Munya. “Cultivation of Bt cotton by our farmers will guarantee a constant supply of raw materials to ginneries and cotton processing industries thus supporting value addition and job creation up the value chain,” he added.

Kenya has joined South Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria and Eswatini in planting GM cotton in Africa. In addition, Kenya has become the first country globally to approve national performance trials of GM cassava, an important crop in sub-Saharan Africa. 

The improved crop, developed by Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), was genetically modified to provide resistance to the Cassava Brown Steak Disease (CBSD), spread by infected cuttings and whiteflies. CBSD leads to devastating losses of up to 98 percent of production in the sector and at present, no cassava varieties have natural resistance to brown streak disease. Now, cassava has become the first food crop to be approved for field cultivation, and Africa’s fifth biotech crop approved for open cultivation after cotton, maize, soybean, and cowpea.

The Kenya National Biosafety Authority (NBA) approved the application for environmental release on 15 June 2021, following a safety assessment that proved cassava varieties were unlikely to pose risk to human and animal health or to the environment. 

The approval by the NBA is valid for five years and paves the way for the National Performance Trials (NPTs), which is the last stage for full environmental and market release. The anticipated increase in cassava yields as a result of the intervention is expected to significantly contribute towards addressing food security and nutrition in the country.

Pushing towards more GM agriculture innovation, GM insect-resistant corn is expected for full commercialization in 2023, as it has been field-tested successfully. The Director General of the KALRO, Dr. Eliud Kireger, highlighted the importance of developing insect-resistant corn: “[Kenya] is losing about 40% of the 42 million bags of maize to stem-borer and other pests and we have to import to make up for the losses.” 

In addition to conducting extensive research and commercializing GMO crops, Kenyan scientists are working on many gene-editing projects, from building resistance in the sorghum plants to developing disease-resistant bananas and drought-resistant corn.

The decision by Kenya to pursue a strategy of encouraging GMO and GE crops is predicted to have a major impact on the decision of other African nations to approve their cultivation.