Resistance to new crops and the government’s role

by James Kamuye Kataru

Kenya’s history is dotted with stories of resistance across the centuries. Right from resisting Christianity which brought education, to other formal resistances like the Nandi resistance against building the railway line on their land. Our heroes and heroines of such moments have ended up either right or outrightly wrong depending on the information that fed their resistance fires. Resisting new ideas, agenda, ideologies or even crops didn’t start with GMO crops and products, it has been and is going to be with us for eons.

The most common and constant factor to these “anti-campaigns” has been the influence by the political class who seek to influence government policy or are being used by major players to set the rules of the game in their own favor by feeding the masses with innuendos laced with political undertones. At the beginning of such movements, the group that’s always “pro idea” always seem overwhelmed until the tide is turned by the same “nay-saying” political class to the side of the “pro-campaigners’. Whatever shifts the tide in such tight situations is a matter better left to us to guess and hypothesize.

One of our network farmers Ahmed Tall planting potatoes in Somalia. Photo credit: Ahmed Tall

The current resistance to GMO technology, crops and products has a similar storyline to what is happening across the world. Records show that certain crops and technologies were resisted by individuals, communities, civilizations, and governments. This was before people understood the actual values and real benefits of the crops. In my opinion, I urge my readers to first consider the benefits in something and weigh them against purported disadvantages before taking a firm position on matters that touch on human life.

Landowners resistance to cane farming in the Mumias region of western Kenya

In Kenya, a story is told of how the government established a sugarcane milling factory (Mumias Sugar in western Kenya) by an act of parliament. In 1971, community land at Elureko in the Nabongo kingdom, which is present day Mumias, was set aside to build a cane milling factory and plant sugarcane to supply the miller. Sugarcane had been growing in the area for over 50 years with jageries scattered all over.  So sugarcane farming was not a new idea or crop, but the milling of the sugarcane into white grains that could be added to tea and other drinks was!

This forced the government to use public barazas to educate the communities on the benefits of growing sugarcane and producing sugar which faced resistance after political merchants incited farmers making them to believe that mill white sugar would cause impotence among other health risks. The government had to organize “sugar licking” meetings where farmers were rounded up, given free tea sweetened with sugar, and raw grains of sugar to lick just to prove it was not harmful as rumored.

Antoine Parmentier and how he promoted the potato in Europe

While landowners in Kenya were resisting the introduction of the sugarcane industry in the 20th century, Europe had been reeling in its share of crop resistance history with a man who is credited to have pushed the acceptance and adoption of the potato as a food crop. Frenchman Antoine Parmentier first encountered potatoes in a Prussian prison. Back at home, the French, and Europe by extension, were using the potato as animal feed and food only for the starving as there was a belief potato caused leprosy or other diseases, even death.

Parmentier’s experience with potatoes while in prison transformed his thinking. He had eaten potatoes and didn’t get leprosy; neither did he die as most locals back in France believed. After his release from prison he set on a mission to prove to the French that potatoes were good for human consumption.

Parmentier conducted research on the nutritional benefits of potatoes which received accolades. When the French people remained leery, he organized lavish dinners featuring potatoes that were attended by celebrities and politicians.  War and famine had a role in the eventual acceptance of potato in France. It’s highly believed that the potato ended famine in northern Europe after its arrival and acceptance. It’s said to have helped some European nations assert domination over most of the world and fuelled the rise of the west between 1750 and 1950.

The following are similarities between the two stories about the resistance to sugarcane farming in western Kenya and the potato in Europe, in relation to the current resistance to the GMO technology by various countries across the world;

  1. There were unfounded superstitions that fuelled the “anti-campaigns” that have been disapproved by science. The belief that potatoes could cause leprosy is similar to the believe that sugar from sugarcane would cause impotence, and that GMO food and products cause cancer.   
  2. The belief that potatoes were meant for livestock feed alone is not far from anti GMO campaigners who insist that the technology can only be used to manufacture animal feed but not good for human consumption.
  3. The influence political players had in fighting or stalling the growth of the potato for human consumption reminds us of how political players in western Kenya worked hard to either stop or encourage the adoption of sugarcane as a major income earner in the region, and how a few politicians are against the implementation of the GMO technology.   
  4. By employing the hosting of potato dinners to increase its publicity and acceptability as food, Parmentier was not far from the miller and government in Kenya which used barazas (meetings organized by local administration) and served tea sweetened with sugar. They went as far as licking grains of sugar to demonstrate to the landowners that indeed sugar wasn’t dangerous to cause impotence! Presently, the Kenya government has allowed GMO seed developers, scientist and researchers to run awareness exhibitions in the country. A major exhibition is happening at KICC Nairobi on 8th and 9th of February 2023.
  5. We can all agree that the potato revolution had its heroes like Antoine Parmentier. Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, who attended the lavish tuber dinners, and the King and queen of France who were presented a bouquet of potato flowers, just like the GMO campaign in Kenya has its front-line heroes and advocates like Dr. William Samoei Ruto who is the President of the republic of Kenya and others pushing from the front-line.

Resistance is mostly brewed by misinformation, while misinformation is killed by scientifically proven facts. If the world was to be fed on rumors and half-truths, life in its essence would lose meaning because people would live under constant fear and run away from their own shadows.  In my pro-GMO campaign, I strive to put facts ahead of fear and encourage my readers to work with the truth towards a food secure future.

On the resistance to new crops, I want my readers to know that the sugarcane that was resisted in my home are in the early 70s turned out to be the mainstay of my people. The company paid cane farmers good money for their cane deliveries, build and maintained good roads, build schools, hospitals, water springs, sank boreholes, and generally improved the livelihoods of over 45,000 cane farmers and their families by the year 2000.

Mumias Sugar Company was one of the leading government parastals of the early 80s and late 90s that contributed hundreds of millions to the exchequer hence helping in nation building. Similar benefits are possible with GMO technology, which if fully implemented shall ensure a food secure nation which is an integral part to the overall growth and development of Kenya.

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