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Frankenfoods: Why Is the Gates Foundation Helping Monsanto Push Genetically Modified Food?

Monsanto and the Gates Foundation claim genetically modified crops will revolutionize agriculture in Kenya, but critics warn the technology is ill-suited to the needs of farmers.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Paige Aarhus/The Indypendent

 
 
 
 

NAIROBI, Kenya—In the sprawling hills of the Kangundo district in Kenya’s Eastern Province, just a few hours outside of capital city Nairobi, Fred Kiambaa has been farming the same small, steep plot of land for more than 20 years.

Born and raised just outside Kathiini Village in Kangundo, Kiambaa knows the ups and downs of agriculture in this semi-arid region. He walks up a set of switchbacks to Kangundo’s plateaus to tend his fields each morning and seldom travels further than a few miles from his plot.

Right now, all that remains of his maize crop are rows of dry husks. Harvest season finished just two weeks ago, and the haul was meager this time around.

“Water is the big problem, it’s always water. We have many boreholes, but when there is no rain, it’s still difficult,” he said.

Kiambaa and his wife, Mary, only harvested 440 pounds of maize this season, compared to their usual 2,200. They have six children, meaning there will be many lean months before the next harvest, and worse: Though March is Kenya’s rainiest month, it’s been mostly dry so far.

“The rain surely is not coming well this year. Rain is the key. We can only pray,” he said.

WONDER CROPS?

Farmers like Kiambaa are central to a push to deploy genetically modified (GM) technology within Kenya. In recent years, donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested millions of dollars into researching, developing and promoting GM technology, including drought-resistant maize, within the country — and have found a great deal of success in doing so through partnerships with local NGOs and government bodies.

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), a semi-autonomous government research institution, recently announced that after years of trials, genetically modified drought-resistant maize seeds will be available to Kenyan farmers within the next five years. Trial GM drought-resistant cotton crops are already growing in Kidoko, 240 miles southeast of Nairobi.

Researchers and lobbyists argue that in a country so frequently stricken by food shortages, scientific advancements can put food into hungry bellies. Drought-resistant seeds and vitamin-enriched crops could be agricultural game changers, they say.

But serious concerns about viability, corporate dependency and health effects linger — even while leading research firms and NGOs do their best to smooth them over.

Agriculture dominates Kenya’s economy, although more than 80 percent of its land is too dry and infertile for efficient cultivation. Kenya is the second largest seed consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nairobi is a well-known hub for agricultural research. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, farming is the largest contributor to Kenya’s gross domestic product, and 75 percent of Kenyans made their living by farming in 2006.

Half of the country’s total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence production — meaning farms like Kiambaa’s, where nothing is sold and everything is consumed.

On top of that, the country is still reeling from the worst drought in half a century, which affected an estimated 13 million people across the Horn of Africa in 2011. Kenya is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, housing 450,000 Somalis fleeing violence and famine, increasing the pressure to deal with food security challenges.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently called on parliament to assist the estimated 4.8 million Kenyans, in a country of about 40 million, who still rely on government food supports, as analysts predict that this year’s rainy season will be insufficient to guarantee food security.

“The situation is not good... Arid and semi-arid regions have not recovered from the drought,” Odinga said.

 
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