Thursday, 7 March 2013

‘Evidence’ of the health risks of genetically modified maize represents an interesting new dimension to the ‘GM debate’ in Kenya

by Stephen Whitfield, KNOTS PhD student

The recent decision taken by the Kenyan Ministry of Health to impose a ban on the importation and consumption of genetically modified foods has highlighted ineffectuality in Kenyan government and, more surprisingly, is indicative of an interesting new dimension to the previously stale ‘GM debate’.

That is because, arguably for the first time, the anti-GM campaign has effectively made an ‘evidence’-based objection that has gained political traction.

Kenya’s GM ban followed a similar decision taken by the Russian government, and it was almost entirely in response to a subtly-promoted, peer-reviewed study at the University of Caen (in France), led by Gilles-Eric Séralini, which tested the effects of the consumption of NK603 (round-up tolerant) maize on rats. The study was conducted over a period of two years and found that test groups were more likely to develop tumours, and at earlier stages, than the control group.

The results of the study, which may have touched on some significant and personal sensitivities within the Ministry of Public Health, were interpreted as pointing to an unacceptable health risk. In a Kenyan government in which ministries compete for authority, this may have been seen by the Ministry of Public Health, who had been largely excluded from the political debate around GMOs, as a chance to have their say. The embargo was put in place almost immediately and without cross-ministry consultation.  The Ministry for Science and Technology, within which a fairly sophisticated biosafety legislation has, over a number of years, been developed and enforced, were, effectively, side-swiped.

Kenya’s pro-biotech lobby, largely composed of politically powerful and well-connected corporations and academic institutions, have been left to wonder what the implications will be for their multiple transgenic products that are currently in the pipeline. As a fundamental part of many of these pioneering technology projects, representative of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the Agricultural Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), CGIAR institutions, and biotechnology corporations have fervently campaigned for a more promotional and ‘science-based’ approach to technology regulation in Kenya.

This pro-biotech lobby has attempted to close down the biosafety issue, such that it is limited almost exclusively to human health, and they have subsequently argued, time and again, that there is no scientific evidence that there are health risks in consuming GMOs.

Significantly, up to this point, the anti-biotech campaign has predominantly focused on challenging this framing, attempting to open up the idea of regulation such that it turns attention to safeguarding against socio-economic, cultural, and ecological risks, and arguing for a precautionary approach in response to these. This is where the Séralini study is interesting. For some, it has provided a means to ‘fight fire with fire’. For organisations such as the Kenya Organic Agricultural Network, the study has given them the opportunity to say: ‘if you want to talk health and evidence, we can do that too’.

In response, the most obvious line of defence has been to discredit the science behind the Séralini study and, quite frankly, this hasn’t been difficult for biotech scientists to do. A number of curious methodological choices were made by the researchers, including an apparent incompatibility between the breed of rat used and the length of time of the study (Sprague-Dawley rats are highly susceptible to developing tumours naturally over such a long period), unclear statistical analysis methods, and the use of only one control group (in a study of 10 groups). Moreover, the Séralini group has been particularly uncommunicative in response to their critics, inevitably resulting in widespread scepticism about their methods and motives. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducted an independent investigation into the study and found it to be of ‘insufficient scientific quality’ and a number of anti-GM NGOs, such as Greenpeace, have been quick to disassociate themselves from the study.

However, it may be that it is the contested nature of the evidence, rather than the evidence itself, that is the real gold for the anti-biotech lobby. Dispute over the findings of the Séralini study have necessarily opened up broader questions about the authority of science and the legitimacy of the privileged position that scientific evidence holds within biosafety regulation. It exposes the ambiguities and assumptions of scientific enquiry and, in doing so, offers a real challenge to the way in which the pro-biotech lobby has largely attempted to frame regulation.

In reality, it is likely that the Kenyan embargo won’t last for too long. After all, Kenya is the country that is supposed to be the next African leader in transgenic technology development and it is a hub for international investment. However, the concerns that the ban has created will live in the memories of those consumers and farmers on whom the real success of Kenyan biotechnology depends. Debates over the labelling of GM foods, which was a key issue in the debate prior to the ban, will inevitably have to be resolved on the side of precaution and in protection of consumer choice. But even more significantly, the pro-biotech lobby will have to be more open about uncertainty within its own evidence bases and be willing to engage in a more transparent and plural science-policy process, if its technology is to earn the trust that it needs.