Pro-GMO farmers are not villains

The dust seems to have settled on the suitability or otherwise of the GMO foods, but this does not mean that 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 they are not farmers, they align themselves with farmers who plant “original” seeds, practice mixed cropping and don’t use farm chemicals.

They view pro-GMO farmers as villains who in cohoot with multinational agri companies, will sacrifice people’s health and the environment. Trade CS Kuria’s infamous comment on the GMO, convinced them that they are the last standing defense for the food consumers. So when I edgewise mentioned that I am a pro-GMO farmer, they could only gasp in shock.

For pro-GMO proponents we should enter this discourse with sobriety, knowing it is not the first time in Kenya that there is scepticism in the seeds science.

The post-independence small holder farmers who planted treated hybrid maize which came in packets labeled “ Poison,Unfit for Human Consumption ”, faced similar resistance, from people who took the safety label to its literal meaning. But the farmers’ resilience and resulting high yields from their farms helped them win over their opponents. My mother (R.I.P) 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 if they label them GMO, no different than medicines. This option has a short turn around, though it will still take years.

Alternatively, we can leave our fate to evolution which would give us the super seeds after thousand 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 to 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, which 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 use of farm chemicals – farmers are aware that the cost of chemicals can eat into their profits. Therefore they use a cost/benefit analysis before using any farm chemical. And with manual labour being unreliable, ineffective and expensive, chemical weed control is the prefered option for most farmers.

On multinational companies wanting to exploit farmers by forcing them to buy seeds – this is a fallacy. Since farmers routinely buy certified seeds e.g of maize, onions or tomatoes 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 the enactment of legislation that would reduce taxation, not just on seeds but on farm inputs.

Finally it would be a mistake if we viewed GMO seeds as panacea for all the challenges in food production. We must remain open to other ideas and farming models as long as they meet the criteria of being profitable, sustainable, scalable and easy to mechanise. While at this, if someone can expound on what are “original” seeds, this farmer will appreciate it.

Anne Munene

Manager Lukuai Farm- Laikipia

( This article was published by the Daily Nation on 30/01/23)

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