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Bioscience Issues

Dr Harvey James

John Templeton Foundation Workshop, “Can GM crops help feed the world?”

Project Summary: “Assessing and Communicating the Risks and Benefits of GM Cassava in Kenya”

Project Leaders: Harvey James, Corinne Valdivia, William Folk (all University of Missouri)

General description
This project addresses two questions: What are the intended and potential unintended consequences of introducing GM cassava in Kenya? How can risks and benefits of introducing GM cassava be communicated to smallholders and other affected stakeholders?

These questions are important because cassava is a key food crop of rural African smallholders, especially when they are unable to meet basic food and nutritional needs. Plant scientists have already developed GM technologies to improve yield stability and nutritional content of cassava. What is not known is what the benefits and risks are to smallholders and how to communicate these to them and other stakeholders who might be affected by the new technology.

There has been little research undertaken and there is sparse understanding of effective means to assess unintended consequences and perceived risks and benefits of the adoption of GM crops (especially those that are a significant source of nutrition for smallholders), and to ensure that these issues are communicated to smallholders and other affected stakeholders. Thus, we aim to respond directly to the problem by examining the issue of how the introduction of GM cassava in Kenya will affect the food security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and the interests of other stakeholders who might be affected by the new technology. Consequently, this research has the potential of influencing the evolution of government policies regarding GM foods and the public perception and acceptance of biotechnology.

Researchers from the University of Missouri, in partnership with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and other collaborators, are administering a two-year participatory assessment study of smallholder farmers and other stakeholders in Kenya. First, we assess how cassava is produced and consumed and how smallholder farmers would be affected by the introduction of GM cassava. We do this through a participatory assessment in focus group meetings in several villages in Kenya. We also identify other stakeholders and ascertain how the introduction of GM cassava might affect their respective interests. We do this through interviews and an analysis of news media to assess stakeholder and public opinions and perceptions. Second, we develop and implement a communication plan for disseminating our findings to smallholders and stakeholders, including strategies for promoting constructive communication regarding ways to improve food security and the potential contributions of biotechnology. We do this through workshops in participating villages to share the information about GMOs, through a conference organized in cooperation with KARI, and through training of KARI personnel who will conduct meetings with smallholder farmers. Village representatives will participate in the conference, as well as other key trusted people. Communication with stakeholders, especially smallholder farmers, is important. Farmers need to know what GMOs are in the context of what cassava means for them.

Progress to date
We have completed most stakeholder interviews, including meetings with scientists, government regulators and farmers and farmer groups. We have completed the protocol development, testing, and implementation of the participatory assessments with farmers in three villages of the Coast (Mombasa). We are also completing analysis of the media data we have compiled from Kenyan newspapers. We are finalizing agreements with KARI to analyze smallholder focus group data from the Coast and to implement focus group studies in the second site, Machakos. To this end we are preparing plans for another trip to Kenya this summer to train the research team conducting the focus group study in Machakos and to implement that part of our project.

Summary of stakeholder interviews
There is almost universal agreement that genetic modification will not be a negative concern for farmers. Virtually all respondents interviewed said that farmers would be willing to adopt GM cassava. There were some important considerations to the adoption decision of farmers.

– The genetically modified cassava has to be the “right” varieties. Farmers are particular about the varieties of cassava they use. GM cassava that is clean (free from mosaic or brown streak disease) but which is not of the type traditionally used or needed by farmers will not be accepted by them.

– Farmers will follow the advice of opinion-makers. Key opinion-makers for farmers are KARI and agricultural extension workers. Other opinion leaders are farmer groups, local community leaders and religious leaders, as well as government leaders. It is important for opinion makers to have an accurate understanding of biotechnology and to be able to communicate risks and benefits accurately to farmers. How information is presented to farmers is important.

– Intellectual property rights will be an important concern, depending on how the GM cassava technology is produced and who owns the rights and what non-owners will be allowed to do. Cassava farms are generally small, and farmers have a tradition of sharing cassava cuttings with neighbors. Therefore, it will not be possible to enforce property rights in Kenya, at least in the way property rights are enforced in the West (e.g., restrict farmers from reusing or sharing GM technology through signed licensing agreements).

– Farmers use a variety of cropping systems with cassava. Many use intercropping or have mixed cropping systems. The extent to which production practices might have to change for farmers will be an important factor farmers will have to consider.

– Cassava itself is often not well understood by stakeholders, in the sense that there were conflicting comments about how cassava is used and what regulations govern its production and processing. These include the nature of tradeoffs, if any, among sweetness, dry matter content, post-harvest deterioration, cyanide potential and other characteristics of cassava. Also, some extension agents asserted that it is illegal to mix wheat flour with cassava flour; however, farmer producer groups were selling flour with wheat and cassava mixtures. One reason for inconsistent understanding might be that how cassava is used (as a food security crop, processed into flour, starch or as a biofuel) depends on location and how much research is being done on cassava in those locations.

– For clean cassava to be beneficial for farmers, in addition to selecting the correct varieties, farmers need to have water and adequate processing and marketing opportunities, including necessary milling machines, drying houses, etc.