Noosim Naimasiah interviews Irene Asuwa and Cidi Otieno about food sovereignty, ecologically appropriate production, distribution and consumption, social-economic justice, and local food systems in Kenya. They also discuss the role of social movements in raising popular consciousness and defending the rights of Kenya’s popular classes.
This article was originally published in Review of African Political Economy.
In these years of confinement and isolation, social movements in Kenya have struggled to breathe. The virtual arena, a poor alternative for community and intimacy, has sharpened the colonial shadows of alienation. Our collective asphyxiation is only allowed temporary individual reprieve through the venting regulator of zoom. The fear produced by the pandemic is being commodified and weaponised. In conjunction with the U.S. government and Bayer, the Kenyan government is flooding peasant farmers’ land with Genetically Modified (GM) seeds.
In colonial Kenya, we were alienated from our land and then quickly, our indigenous food production. We were forced to grow the more commercial variety of crops for export in order for our exploited waged labour to pay for our violently imposed taxes. Consequently, our environment became alienated from our bodies and our bodies to our food. By the 1980s, structural adjustment programs increased the reliance on food imports and food aid, and privatised the provision of water. Now, in these neoliberal times, even a seed, the very essence of life, is being commodified.
Peasant farmers who have been banking and sharing seeds for centuries will now be forced to buy seeds every season, monocrop, and use expensive and potentially carcinogenic herbicides that come with the GMO package. The debt incurred in the name of the old civilising mission now dubbed ‘infrastructure development’ has further constricted our national sovereignty. Debt has become a way of colonising the imagination of future possibilities and sovereignty to make local decisions.
Meanwhile, local farmers and activists are pushing back and advocating for food sovereignty, which emphasises ecologically appropriate production, distribution and consumption, social-economic justice and local food systems as ways to tackle hunger and poverty and guarantee sustainable food for all peoples.
I met with Irene Asuwa and Cidi Otieno, coordinators at the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) and Kenya Peasants League (KPL) respectively to speak about this new hyper-alienation in the form of the illegal distribution by the Kenyan government of GM seeds. We also discussed the role of social movements in the time of COVID in raising public consciousness and defending our sovereignty.
Noosim Naimasiah: If you have been watching TV or reading the newspapers in the last year in Kenya, you see that the government has been actively donating GM seeds to farmers. This comes in the wake of the still existing moratorium on GM seeds that was installed by the Kenyan government in November 2012 against the importation and planting of any GMO product. I want to place our discussion in the context of the global debate on the viability of GM seeds. With this in mind, we can begin the conversation by understanding firstly what precisely we mean by GMOs. What does the acronym stand for and what exactly are they?
Cidi Otieno: Thank you comrade, for organizing this timely and important meeting today. In simple terms, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are actually those crops that have been genetically engineered. Genetical engineering is basically altering the DNA of a particular organism or of a particular crop and we have seen that scientists have been arguing that genetic modification is not new and has been taking place naturally. Through natural selection we have seen organic genetic engineering taking place. But what is happening in the labs is that different foreign components are being added into an organism’s DNAs, motivated by the potential for massive profits for transnational corporations and basically having a potential of artificially altering an entire population.
Why is this genetic engineering a big issue because as they say, if we are going to get a better variety of a crop, resistant to certain pests, increasing the yield, reducing the maturation period of the crop, why would we be against it?
Cidi Otieno: Firstly, if GMOs are coming to solve the problem of hunger and accessibility to food, why do we have a country like South Africa where despite their long-held adaptation of GM, having the problems of hunger? Secondly, you find that some of these GM crops are highly dependent on chemicals pesticides and herbicides like Round Up that has been sued for its carcinogenic effects. Thirdly, as the KPL, we focus on indigenous seeds, and we tell farmers to bank seeds which can be replanted after every season and shared among members without altering their nutritional benefit. However, with GMs, you have to keep buying them every season and not only is this very expensive, but it makes farmers very dependent.
When you are a farmer, you have land, and you don’t own the seeds then you cannot attain food sovereignty and that’s why we say that food sovereignty starts with seeds sovereignty. This means the farmers owning the seeds, the farmers owning the land, the farmers owning the water systems, the farmers owning the food production system. Seed is very important in ensuring the availability of food and once our farmers are left in the hands of multinational corporations like Monsanto Syngenta, Bayer and One Acre Fund, then we lose that aspect of seeds sovereignty.
If you look at Migori County in western Kenya where we have members, we saw farmers protesting that there are no seeds in the agrovets [a supply store for farmers], but our members had the seeds. During this corona period we have seen increased demand for seeds from us because there is shortage of seeds. So, the whole premise for the need for GMOs is false because we are not hungry because there is no food, we are hungry because of distribution. We are hungry because of the failure of the food production system.
Irene Asuwa: I remember doing research with an organization in Siaya county in western Kenya and there were these millet seeds that a big company had distributed. The people told me how that had interfered with the whole chain of production from the pollinators to their ability to accurately predict weather patterns and to tell the health of the soil because some of the birds that ate the millet were dead, and the bees disappeared. As for the sunflowers, the birds were not coming anymore because that sunflower was alien. And you realize that when that chain in the ecosystem is broken there is a huge problem for farmers and for the nature.
Also, as you might know, most of the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that we use are contraband. They have been banned in other markets in Europe but we still use them. So, we are using carcinogenic things that put other people health at risk in the name of providing more food. So, if you are providing food and people go to the hospital after eating that food then what’s that?
It is very enlightening especially for people who have done research on the ground and understand the material implications of what actually is happening. There is now, in the continent, a general trend towards unbanning GM, installing trials, and legalising importation and production and it is pertinent for us to understand the political and social factors that are facilitating this new wave. Comrade Cidi, could you share your thoughts on this?
Cidi Otieno: In 2012 in Kenya, the then minister of Public Health Beth Mugo established a taskforce to review and evaluate information on the safety of GMOs. And in 2013, 15 November, the taskforce released a report, noting that the government was right in banning import of GMOs. The taskforce came to a conclusion that the safety of GM foods had not been conclusively demonstrated to allow for the lifting of the ban. It gave some recommendations which included; a need to develop guidelines for testing of GMOs; the priority of safety with regard to human health, and the need to develop capacity for the determination of the safety of GMOs on a case-by-case basis through the national regulator – National Biosafety Authority. Fundamentally, the committee noted that there was need to develop adequate infrastructure for carrying out and where necessary, replicating long term trials by Kenyan scientists funded solely by the Kenyan government.
However, we see that some of these authorities are being funded by the same transnational corporations that are promoting GMOs, so their independence actually is in question. Because I am part of the adhoc technical committee, expert group for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as part of La Via Campesina, I know based on the FAO reports that small scale farmers globally contribute over 70% of food on the table. We know right now that the in-house trials of GM maize done by scientists from the Jomo Kenyatta University in Kiboko and Kibwezi and the reports generated, no small-scale farmers were consulted, even after we raised this issue with KARLO (Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization) several times. Instead, the government should be doing farm-based research because the farmers are large laboratories. Farmers have been conducting research from time immemorial using natural selection and saving seeds. What we are saying is that it is high time the government started investing in farm-based research, supporting small scale farmers and peasant farmers, livestock keepers, fisher folk communities who are actually the ones who are contributing to the food on the table.
Right now, if you look at the Big Four agenda of the current government, we are seeing a very big push for GM foods. For example, if you look at the food security pillar, it states that the government will accelerate the introduction of GM-insect resistant crops. As we know, food security does not distinguish where food comes from, or the conditions under which it is produced and distributed. National food security targets are often met by sourcing food produced under environmentally destructive and exploitative conditions, and supported by subsidies and policies that destroy local food producers but benefit agribusiness corporations. That’s why the government is saying to revive manufacturing companies like Rivatex, KICOTEC (Kitui County Textile Center) and KIKOMI (Kisumu Cotton Mills) with BT cotton. But we know what has happened in Burkina Faso, we know what has happened in India with GM cotton, farmers have committed suicide in those countries because they were expecting to earn money and instead, they are plunged into debt.
Specifically, we know the Deputy President has been pushing a lot in terms of lifting the ban. People have been asking why the Kibaki government banned GMOs and the Jubilee government is pushing for lifting the ban. If you look at the debt equation between the two governments, Kibaki, Kenya’s second president, left the country with about Kenyan shillings 1.2 trillion debt [about US$10.5 billion]. Today we are 7 trillion in debt. These debts come with conditions like imposing GM seeds, pushing for the legal lifting of these bans and pushing for chemical herbicides. It is the IMF and World Bank that dictate that since you are borrowing from them, you can only spend on certain sectors and they only choose sectors where they have interests.
Irene Asuwa: I also wanted to add to Cidi’s answer that even in society, there is a class and race component. For example, I know farmers who specifically grow organic foods for the Indian market in Kenya which is only available in certain supermarkets and spaces.
In terms of class, you can clearly see the intent to alienate farmers from their land. Because when farmers are fully dependent on GM seeds, and they can’t afford them anymore, then who is going to grow the food? The corporations are going to grow the food and they are going to do it on a large scale, in monoculture and damage our land so we will be at the mercy of companies to grow food for us. There is also segregation in the sense that what you will find in Naivas supermarket in Kasarani (a high-density neighbourhood) is not what you will find in Naivas Lavington (a middle-class neighbourhood). So, there is also a class question in that.
Now, in terms of democracy, how do we deal with the sudden imposition of GM foods without public participation? Is taking the matter up in the law courts a possibility? It is important to know that both the current government and the unofficial opposition (led by Deputy President William Ruto) all endorse GM seeds. We know that Kenya was one of the first countries to sign the Cartagena protocol that advocates for the protection of biological diversity from the adverse effects of GMOs. We also have the Kenya Biosafety Act which was signed into law in 2009. Kenya is also a signatory to the Africa Model Law which was put in place by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in the year 2000 (now the African Union) and it provides for the protection of the rights of local communities, farmers, breeders and for the regulation of access to biological resources. Can these laws provide any sort of protection?
Cidi Otieno: There is what is called debt colonisation. The structured Aspen programs re-orient the food production systems towards export-oriented food production and promotes large scale cash crop food production. And also, some of these IMF conditionalities of liberalisation also come with conditions that attach themselves to GMOs.
You mentioned the Cartagena protocol which was adopted in 2000 and it entered into force in 2003. Kenya has ratified this protocol, but this depends on the goodwill of the politicians. However, we are already seeing BT cotton coming into Kenya despite the fact that the government has ratified this protocol. The farmers were not given any information. Meeting government ministers in hotels does not constitute meeting farmers.
You also mentioned the Kenya Biosafety Act that was signed into law in 2009. Section 18 of the Act prohibits the conduction of any activity involving GMOs without written approval of the authority. The authority, however, is not the farmers. If you look at the composition of the authority, there are no farmer representatives. If you look at Section 19, it prohibits the introduction into the environment of a GMO without authority. Section 20 prohibits importation into Kenya of a GMO without approval of the authority. 21 prohibits placing on the market of any GMO without approval of the authority.
Who are these authorities? How are they appointed? As I said earlier some of these authorities are funded by the same organizations/institutions that are supporting GMOs. Despite the fact that we have good laws, or the 2010 Constitution, the real the issue is if we have the political goodwill of those in authority to be able to implement them?
Sadly, our government has been privatized. It has been captured by the forces of capitalism so whenever the president who is captured and appoints the chairman of the authority, the chairman is also captured and therefore that’s why we are seeing these approvals taking place. That’s why we as KPL are encouraging farmers to disobey and not wait for so-called good laws. We are already banking seeds and sharing them. We are already ensuring when the farmers who need the seeds, can get them. That’s where we can start. When we have consumers saying we are not going to eat GMs, we are going to start eating indigenous crops, our farmers will get a market for their non-GM produce.
It was very sad during Covid to hear the Cabinet Secretary of agriculture say that they are going to import maize, yet we have farmers with maize in Kenya. That’s because it’s one of the conditions that the World Bank gave Kenya a Covid 19 loan. Now Kenya has to import maize from somewhere in Mexico and yet we have farmers from Kitale, Migori, and many other counties who have maize but who don’t have a market to sell the maize. This is totally irrational. The only way we can get the market is through a boycott of GM crops while creating a food distribution system to link farmers directly to customers – that’s the only way our farmers are going to get their income and continue to plant indigenous seeds. These laws are not going to help. We have to come up with our own laws! We can’t wait for them to make laws for us, that are then not implemented.
Thank you, comrade, for bringing up this issue of debt colonization. It is important for people to understand how legislation comes into being because we use legislation many times as our defense, as our recourse to justice, but a lot of times this legislation can be enacted and abolished and banned at political will or just ignored essentially. Our recourse then, is to plant our own seeds.
Irene Asuwa: We are also party to the Paris Agreement, but we have violated the agreement despite the fact that we were one of the first countries to sign it. Kenya ratifies everything. The Paris Agreement also has sections that say that we recognize indigenous people, vulnerable people and their rights and commitment to guard indigenous knowledge which includes indigenous seeds, indigenous ways of farming, indigenous methods of predicting and managing climate change and adapting to climate change. As Cidi says, it is one thing to sign and ratify these things into law and it’s another thing to implement them. On the suggestion of going the legal way, sometimes it gives small wins but it can be very draining. I was part of the decolonize campaign during the time that we had the court battle and it is not a very nice experience because you are in and out of courts for years before getting the judgment which might not even be in your favor. And there are a lot of interrogations, judges not showing up for the bench intentionally, they don’t communicate, or changing of court venues. It’s just a back and forth and people are likely to lose momentum. We can get a court order, but the government will not obey the order!
I would now like us to discuss the role of multinational corporations. To present the lay of the land, we can begin with Monsanto. Monsanto has been the largest agri-tech GM Company in the world. It was acquired recently by Bayer which was the largest German pharmaceutical even though now the merger is falling apart because there are so many lawsuits against Monsanto. So many people have lodged lawsuits going into tens of millions in US dollars. There is also the Dow and Dupont merger and ChemChina acquiring Syngenta which presents a huge shift in the agritech industry in the way of creating monopolies that globally dominate the food industry.
There are very serious implications of these mergers on our food systems. The history of these companies is telling. A company like Bayer was responsible for the production of aspirin. It was the first company to legally sell and commercialize heroine before it was removed from the market. It was heavily involved in the holocaust, using techniques tested in concentration camps for medical experiments and of course many of them died as you can imagine.
Monsanto itself assisted in the development of the first nuclear weapons. It started as a chemical company in the US, and it has introduced very harmful chemical pesticides like DDT and PCB. They also produced Agent Orange which was used in the Vietnam war as a chemical war weapon.
Then there is the African Agricultural Technical Foundation (AATF) and you see that it is involved in so many organizations like AU, NEPAD, with the National biosafety authorities in the continent and you would imagine that it is an African company, same with the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). But these are just subsidiary organizations for Rockefeller which is in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation as well as USAID. They are essentially the brokers between biotech companies and the African state scientific council to facilitate research on GM crops. They lobby for laws and patent rights for these companies.
So, the main thing that these multinationals really advocate for is the privatisation of land and seeds by introducing property rights over plant varieties and criminalizing farmers who plant their own varieties. They are doing all these things by carrying out training for media to present GM seeds. They hold workshops and lobby government officials to change biosafety regulations and patent their GM seeds. So, they patent life itself. If you can patent a seed, it means you can patent life. And owning life for profit seems to be the long-term game. They laid the ground for neoliberalism with the structural adjustment programmes in Africa that ushered in privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation of public institutions. What are your thoughts on these multinational corporations?
Cidi Otieno: Recently, we had an online virtual meeting of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Farmers’ Rights and again we saw how transnational corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta are lobbying for the patenting of seeds. If you look at UPOV 91 (Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties) has worked exclusively to privatsze seeds around the world by imposing intellectual property rights on plant varieties as fundamental parts of bilateral trade agreements. The Kenyan Seeds and Plants Varieties Act is a copy and paste of UPOV. Look at the draft East African Seeds and Plants varieties bill that is being developed, again, it is a copy and paste of the Kenyan Seeds and Plants Varieties Act.
Kenya is at the forefront of the neo-liberal offensive of this region. So, with the African Free Trade Agreement, it is Kenya that is pushing it. You find that Kenya is now the country that is being used to promote the neo-liberal policies in the region. The question we are asking is why are countries like Kenya so quick to implement bad laws yet slow to implement laws like the Article 9 of the International Plan Treaty or Article 19 of the Peasants Rights Declaration? The answer is the influence of transnational corporations.
If you go to Siaya County today, a region in western Kenya, you will find that Syngenta or One Acre Fund are giving farmers seeds and forcing them to get mobile phones and television sets on credit, which a farmer has to pay back for over 21 months and when they don’t pay then their produce is taken. The government is silent about all this. If you look at the regional governments, they are allocating funds to buy seeds from agrovets using taxpayer’s money. Yet we know that government should allocate money to buy these indigenous seeds from farmers to distribute.
We also know that in addition to controlling the production of seeds, these MNCs are also producing herbicides. The most infamous one, Glyphosate, commonly known by its trade name, Roundup, produced by Bayer has been subject to numerous studies that have argued that is has carcinogenic outcomes, increasing weed resistance and environmental hazards. A recent study done by Kenyatta University researchers on tomato farmers in Kenya, especially in Kirinyaga county who are the largest producers (50,000 tonnes at the Mwea Irrigation scheme annually) have found that the use of WHO class II pesticides whose residue is likely to remain in the crop has linked the effects of its consumption to cancer, malformation of the fetus and damage to the immune system. The reason given is that farmers are ignorant of its effects.
Further still, a research report by Route to Food Initiative in 2019 revealed that many pesticides that are actually registered by the government’s Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) have the potential to cause serious health and environmental problems. KOAN did a study on the pesticides actually used by famers (30%) of whom did not use personal protection equipment while spraying and found that 48% have an effect on human reproductive systems, 70% on fish and 41% on bees.
We know that Europe banned the planting of GMO and 34% of the active ingredients of the pesticides registered in Kenya are either withdrawn or heavily restricted by the European market, which ironically is the second highest exporter of pesticides to Kenya. It is claimed that the reason farmers continue to use toxic amounts of pesticides is because farmers have not been trained on pesticide use and they rely on their untrained neighbours for information. Why have these issues not been flagged by the PCPB or the Kenya Drug and Poisons Board and why were they registered in the first place?
Cidi Otieno: Recently, the Kenya Peasant League in collaboration with a Professor from the University of Graz in Austria, War on Want in Britain, and a movement from Turkana (a region in Northern Kenya), were talking about having field tests for organic pesticides in response to the locusts. The Professor from the University of Graz has actually developed an organic pesticide. When we went to the pest control board, the requirements that they made – well, it’s only people like Monsanto who can manage this level of bureaucracy. You find that these pests boards are public institutions that have effectively been privatised. They are public by name but private by funding. Together with the War on Want we are working on a campaign to expose this information.
If you look at some of these pesticides, they are clearly written POISON, KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN, so you wonder why something that you cannot use without protection is safe. Some of these pesticides are not target specific, they kill all other organisms in the soil. There are some soil micro-organisms that are very essential for the life of soil and for soil development. When there is surface runoff for example, some of these pesticides are flushed into the rivers and they kill fish. We have heard farmers complaining of several diseases, but the problem is, most farmers take such diseases as common sicknesses so they don’t report them. If someone is at the PCPB and he or she is allowing a pesticide that has been banned in Europe to come to Kenya to kill people, then that person must be held responsible for manslaughter or murder. It’s depopulation, it is genocide!
The health impact has been catastrophic. At least in this continent we have seen the escalation of cancer related deaths by at least 45% since the year 2000. By now, all of us know someone, maybe a friend, a very close family member or neighbour who is suffering from or has died because of cancer – a disease, hitherto unheard of in our childhood. It’s killing more than 500,000 people each year. Women are being very adversely affected because breast and cervical cancer are the most prevalent of the cancers in the continent.
They say that over a third of all cancer deaths in women are in South Saharan Africa even though we are only 14% of the total female population in the world. So, you can imagine what that means. Globally cancer has caused more deaths compared to HIV, TB and malaria combined. In Kenya, it’s the third highest cause of morbidity after infectious diseases and cardiovascular diseases. A lot of documentaries have exposed how families are increasingly devastated when a member has cancer, selling all their property in order to access treatment.
I want to cite just a few studies that were done linking GMOs to cancer. There’s the most famous one, the Seralini study in France that led to the banning in Kenya. Unlike most scientists funded by these multinational corporations who carry out research for 90 days, this one was research conducted over two years. Seralini scientists found that there are severe impacts on kidney and liver functioning after four months because when they did the study on rats fed on GM maize, they developed cancerous tumors.
This is just to show the extent of the problems. All of us know that a lot of people in our lives are now suffering from not just cancer but also reproductive health problems. Things like autism all these health issues that we had never heard of are now becoming an everyday discussion. In India buffalos which were consuming GM cotton suffered from infertility, miscarriages, prolapsed uteruses and a lot of them died. It is important to point out that all the mentioned studies have been done by independent researchers. It is critical to know who is funding a particular study so that results are measured against the potential bias because many pro-GMO MNCs and international organizations fund a lot of the studies that show their ‘benefits’.
Lastly, comrades, what are you doing in your prospective movements to collectively promote food sovereignty?
Irene Asuwa: We are linking already existing youth groups that have environmental departments with each other and with RSL. We have a number of social justice centres as well that have environmental pillars. They have activities of rehabilitating spaces, having small ecological gardens and some of them have also started banking indigenous seeds, propagating them and sharing the seedlings. We have very thankfully received indigenous seeds from KPL. We are working on a biweekly political education class with specific regard to ecological justice.
Cidi Otieno: During the covid pandemic, KPL has seen an increased demand for seeds from farmers who are not even members. Right now, we are working with support from the Agroecology Fund to enhance seed banking and distribution, linking farmers who want seeds with farmers who have the seeds.
As the KPL, we push for food sovereignty and food sovereignty is basically the total control of the food system from the seeds to the land, water, natural resources, and the food distribution networks. We do this by linking farmers directly to consumers, we have seeds exchange festivals annually. Right now, we are documenting all the seeds that our farmers have so that we have a chance at an equable and just system.
Noosim Naimasiah is a Pan-Africanist filmmaker, scholar, and social justice activist whose focus is on indigenous knowledge, political economy and liberatory politics. She is currently a lead researcher and editor at Vita Books and Ukombozi Library.
Irene Asuwa is a social justice feminist activist who focuses on ecological justice. She is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League that holds political education classes in local communities. She is also a member of Ukombozi Library. Irene was interviewed for roape.net here.
Cidi Otieno is a policy advisor and secretary general for the Kenya Peasants League. Cidi is a resource economist, a trained social scientist, a passionate agroecologist and most importantly, a peasant farmer who advocates for food sovereignty.