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Kenya is on track to approving GM cassava — take a bow local scientists – Business Daily

A woman weeds cassava at a Kalro farm. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Cassava is a hardy crop widely grown in the country, can contribute to food security and has industrial application. The Kenya Agricultural and Liverstock Research Organisation in collaboration with its international counterparts is applying modern biotechnology to develop a new genetically modified (GM) cassava variety (cassava 4046) resistant to the viral disease, cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), that has been devastating the crop.
Plant breeders have found it difficult to develop cassava varieties that are resistant to CSBD using conventional breeding methods.
To develop the cassava 4046, scientists exploited a natural cell process called RNA interference and introduced a tiny piece of the two viruses that cause the CBSD disease into the cassava plant, which in turn activated the natural defence mechanism of cassava to fight CBSD; much like how some vaccines work in humans.
Invariably, the question of the safety of this new GM cassava arises. In evaluating the safety of cassava 4046, the researchers are required to demonstrate to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) that it does not pose any new risks to the environment as well as human and animal health.
From a health safety perspective, researchers must demonstrate that cassava 4046 will be as safe as its conventional counterpart. In food safety lingo this is referred to as ‘substantial equivalence’.
Having shown that cassava 4046 does not pose any new risks to human health and the environment, through safety data generated under confined experimental conditions in the past five years, the scientists have been granted limited environmental release approval by NBA, subject to National Environment Management Authority licensing, to conduct national performance trials in various parts of the country, to further evaluate the performance of the cassava 4046.
This is the penultimate stage of evaluation before the NBA grants full environmental release, followed by commercialisation approval by the government.
This is the first transgenic cassava to obtain environmental release approval by a competent authority anywhere in the world. If and when the CBSD-resistant cassava is approved by the government and released to farmers, it will not only be a demonstration of the ability of local scientists to develop GM crops of interest to the country and region, but also provide further evidence of a maturing biosafety system.
As a country, we need to reach a point where the public is confident in and fully trusts the capability of our regulatory agencies and scientists to ensure the safe application and utilization of products of modern biotechnology, the GM food importation ban notwithstanding.
The writer is a researcher and food safety expert. [email protected]



Joseph Muongi

Financial.co.ke was founded by Mr. Joseph Muongi Kamau. He holds a Master of Science in Finance, Bachelors of Science in Actuarial Science and a Certificate of proficiencty in insurance. He's also the lead financial consultant.