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Story Publication logo December 2, 2009

Kenya: Africans Not Sold on Biotech Food


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African farmers already struggle to grow sufficient maize, which is a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry...

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An issue earlier this year of New African, a widely distributed monthly news magazine, carried the cover story: "GM Food: Is it good for Africa?" The headline on the story inside gave the answer: "Seeds of destruction." That's a message that Africans have been getting for a decade at least about genetically engineered crops. And governments, with a handful of exceptions, most notably South Africa's, have kept biotech seeds out of their country, much to the frustration of the U.S. government and American agribusiness. What I'm hearing from plant scientists to ordinary Kenyans is that public views toward the foods likely won't change until political leaders assure them that it's safe.

That doesn't mean there's universal fear of the foods. I set out to get the views of some middle-income and poor Kenyans at a open-air market, where Christmas roosters were crowing, roosters being a popular Christmas entree, and a Tusky's grocery store. Both are on Nairobi's east side. The city's lush west and north sides are more affluent and home to legions of expatriates and aid agencies. In other words, they're not remotely representative of Kenya or the rest of east Africa. The responses ran the gamut. One vendor who was selling tomatoes four for 10 shillings, or about 13 cents, liked the idea of a biotech, drought-tolerant corn variety. He seemed impressed that genetically modified corn had been imported from South Africa this year and used to relieve hunger in areas hardest hit by this year's drought. But many of the Kenyans I talked to, like many Americans, had little understanding of genetic engineering. One woman told me that she thought biotech foods already were being sold throughout the supermarket. (This reporting foray would been a lot harder, less safe, and not nearly as much fun, without the help of an enthusiastic young video crew, Rose Klamare and Naigine Ochiel, who helped me ease the way into conversations and translated when necessary.)

What Kenyans are clear about is that they care about their maize and they view the crop far differently than Americans, where corn is primarily fed to animals or fermented into motor fuel. The supervisor at the Tusky's, not a particularly big store by Nairobi standards, says he sells 2,000 to 4,000 2-kilogram bags of maize meal a day. The meal is used to make ugali, which is something like congealed corn grits, and porridge and eaten by people of all classes.

I also caught up today with a friend who knows something about biotech crops as well as the trials of poor farmers in east Africa, Horace Tipton, a former cotton and soybean farmer in Tennessee who brought his family to Kenya several years ago. Horace and his wife, Anne, started a ministry called Planting Faith that helps smallholder farmers form cooperatives and learn to grow and market new income-generating crops. In the process, they've learned a thing or two about the challenges of farming in Africa. Initially, farmers were encouraged to grow flowers for export to Europe, an idea that didn't look so good after the European flower market slumped and buyers became pickier about the consistency of what they were buying. Now, the farmers are targeting local markets with crops such as butternut squash. The Tiptons' newest project is a demonstration farm, where Horace wants to bring in farmers and to teach them methods that have fallen out of favor in much of the United States: Integrating crops and livestock. The farmers will learn how to grow a mix of crops, including grain for livestock feed, and then use the animals' manure to fertilize the following seasons' crops. He also plans to teach them conservation tillage techniques - building soil fertility by leaving crop residue to decay in the ground rather than constantly plowing. He calls his ideas "common sense." But he, like many African scientists I've talked to, say many poor farmers often lack the most basic knowledge about how to get the most out of their crops. That includes knowing the best time to plant.



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