By Natasha Gilbert of Nature magazine

Kenya is expected to become the fourth African country to allow the commercial production of transgenic crops.

The country's National Biosafety Authority is due to publish long-awaited regulations governing the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in open fields for research and commercial purposes. Kenya follows Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa in giving commercial production of GM organisms the go-ahead.

Kenya's agricultural researchers say the move could not come soon enough, as the absence of regulations was stalling research.

"Without the regulations, projects can't move forward into unconfined trials where crops are released into the environment and their performance is tested under different climatic and soil conditions," says Simon Gichuki, crop scientist and head of the biotechnology centre at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Nairobi.

Pest-resistant cotton

The first transgenic crop likely to be put forward for approval for open trials and commercial release is Bt cotton--which has added genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, making the plant produce toxins that confer resistance to some insect pests.

A Bt cotton variety is being developed for Kenyan farmers at KARI. According to the regulations it will take a minimum of three months to get the green light for environmental release after permission is sought from the authorities.

Next in line will be Bt maize (corn), also being developed by scientists at KARI, says Gichuki. Other crops undergoing confined field trials include virus-resistant sweet potatoes and drought-resistant maize, he says.

Kenya passed a biosaftey law in 2009 which allowed the commercial production of transgenic crops in principle. These regulations set out the details of how the law will be implemented, including rules governing experimental lab work and confined field trials, and the import, export and in-country transport of GM products.

For example, when seeking permission to release a transgenic product into the environment or place it on the market, applicants must submit a risk assessment and set out all the uses of the GM crop to the Kenyan biosafety authority. The authority will screen the submissions for accuracy and completeness and must make a decision within 90 and 150 days. The authority must inform the public of all applications for environmental release by, for example, publishing notices in a least two widely circulated newspapers, the draft regulations say.

Setting regulations

Permission for environmental release is granted for a period of 10 years, after which consent must be re-sought. Once a product has been released for 20 years with no reported risks to human health and the environment, it can continue to be released or placed on the market without further approval.

Breach of the regulations could result in a fine of up to 20 million Kenyan shillings (around US$221,000) or imprisonment for up to 10 years.

Francis Nang'ayo, an ecologist and regulatory affairs manager at the African Agriculture Technology Foundation based in Nairobi, describes the regulations as "precautionary but facilitating the development of biotechnology".

"Biotechnology has the potential to help solve some agricultural and health problems in Kenya. So it should be harnessed, but safely," he explains.

For example, Kenya is suffering from a shortage of maize, in part because a drought has destroyed large swathes of local farmers' crops. Without the regulations, Kenya is unable to import the white variety of maize Kenyans like to eat as the majority of this is transgenic, says Gichuki.

Nang'ayo says Kenyan farmers are keen to adopt new technologies, including transgenic crops, that will enable them to produce greater volumes for less money.

Dissident voices

But not everyone is in favor. Anne Wanjiku Maina, advocacy coordinator for the African Biodiversity Network, an anti-GM group based in Thika, Kenya, believes the patenting of seeds is "unethical" and "undermines farmers' rights to save seeds".

"Our public research institutions must shift their focus back to farmers' needs rather than support the agenda of agribusiness," she said to Nature.

Kenya has the strongest economy in east Africa and will set an example to other countries in the continent, including Nigeria and Ghana which are taking steps to improve national provision for biotechnology and biosaftey.

"If Kenya succeeds it will have an impact on others to follow," says Getachew Belay, biotechnology policy adviser for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)--a regional trade block. Belay is leading efforts to create common biosafety rules between COMESA member countries. (See 'Transgenic harvest')

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on July 11, 2011.