Written by Erick Akasa
Recently published Genetically Modified Organism labeling regulations (Kenya Gazette Supplement No. 17 of 2012, Legal notice no. 40) are too prohibitive for the milling industry and are likely to cause food shortage, stakeholders allege.
Millers are alarmed that the country could slump into a food crisis considering the imminent maize shortage triggered by the mysterious maize disease in grain growing areas which has substantially reduced farmers' harvests across the country.
At the same time most millers are now shying away from importing maize because of the punitive biosafety law.
“We are concerned that labeling of GM foods would create an immediate sense among our consumers that there is something wrong with GM foods.” This is particularly true when considering that most consumers are not well versed in their understanding of the nature of GM foods, the debate surrounding them, the alleged risks, and the fact that most of the foods they are consuming are already genetically engineered in some way,” says Paloma Fernandes, Executive Officer, Cereal Millers Association of Kenya (CMA).
The contentious regulations require that all GM-derived products are labeled from production to marketing.
The regulations also impose highly punitive fines of Kshs 20 million and a 10 year jail term if a trader fails to comply. These penalties have now left most millers and biotechnology stakeholders seeking a review of the newly gazetted regulations.
Urgent review is necessary to allow for timely commercialization of products currently under development and free and fair trade in GM foods.
According to Paloma, Kenyans are already burdened by high food prices occasioned by shortages, low productivity among others.
“Therefore labeling of genetically modified foods would make it more expensive for many food companies to produce their foods, as it requires regulation of their food production, to ensure that they are below the GM food level. This means that the ultimate food product must be priced at a higher level for consumers, to compensate for their added expenses in complying with labeling.” She adds.
“There are also many intermediaries involved in the production and marketing of cereals like maize. The chain is long and complicated from the farmers to the final consumer; this may require expensive segregation mechanisms in the production, transportation and distribution chains in order to comply with the traceability requirements. The requirement that all the operators along the chain (millers, distributors/transporters, retail and wholesale outlets) maintain registers for purposes of tracing GMOs. This will translate to additional technical, administrative and financial costs the price of the GM products before reaching the final consumer will reflect the additional costs. This means non-GMO products may actually be cheaper than GMO because of the stringent requirements and conditions.” Reiterates Paloma.
“It is probably naive to believe that consumers in Kenya would feel better and more assured after the labeling of these products, or that they would feel empowered by a new-found choice. Instead, they would be alarmed at the number of labels appearing on the shelves, and would become more anxious about GM foods,” Paloma remarked.
According to the Biosafety Act, the application to bring GM products takes between 90 and 150 days to be approved. “In a time of food scarcity and drought, a period of 3-5 months to get an approval is just not practical,” says Paloma.
“Millers would therefore be forced to source for only GM-free maize. If countries producing GM-free maize place restrictions on exports it will be difficult to deal with the deficit in the country. There will be no incentive to import cheap GM maize from countries such as South Africa because of the high financial and legal costs risks involved, she adds.
Paloma says that the Government should carefully analyze the costs and implications of the labeling regulations on food security and the entire economy. The immediate victims of the regulations include farmers, the millers and consumers.
“Based on the cost-benefit impact analysis, the government should immediately initiate a process of amending the regulations to reflect reality and practicality whereby all the stakeholders would be involved in an inclusive manner ,the government should also evaluate potential trade impacts with bilateral partners, particularly countries that are growing GM maize,” says Paloma.
She said until Kenya and Kenyans fully embrace GM technology including planting and processing of GM products, “only then would millers be able to fully participate in the GM revolution.”