US scientist challenges Kenyan counterparts

By Henry Neondo

A visiting US scientist has challenged local compatriots to reclaim the biotechnology agenda from the civil societies bent on propagating negative information.

Speaking yesterday in Nairobi at an informal meeting with leading scientists from the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), University of Nairobi (UoN), Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications-Africentre (ISAAA), Prof Bruce M. Chassy, Executive Director of the Biotechnology Centre, University of Illnois, US, Prof Bruce said lots of what the larger public know about biotechnology is defined by the civil society and whose information lacks scientific backing, is at most hypothetical and tend to be politically motivated”.

“It is incumbent upon scientists to take an active role and take back the core issues in the debate on biotechnology”, he said.

He said for example, that while opposition to bioengineered agricultural products hinged on safety and health, such fears are not unfounded as they have no scientific basis. He said that currently, 75-80 percent of US products in supermarkets are GM and people have no issues with this.

He warned that the cost of scientists maintaining a status quo, of not talking to the public, shunning media and failing to lobby policy makers would be enormous and risk giving wrong information about current science to future generations who would rely on false information as propagated by the less informed but vocal people.

Prof Bruce urged scientists to develop capacity to communicate their research work to the public so as to win their confidence and thereby help drive national development policies based on an informed choices..

He warned that unless local scientists can do this, they risked being taken hostage by policy makers, who only serve for short terms during their elected periods and hence have science and technology taking a back seat.

Agreeing, the US scientist who is poised to give public lectures on biotechnology at the Maseno University today and University of Nairobi on Wednesday and Thursday, Prof James O. Ochanda, coordinator Centre for Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, University of Nairobi said that local research institutions should learn to engage the media so as to shift the balance from anti-GMO groups.

On her part, the Executive Director of ISAAA-Africentre, Dr Margerate Karembu said scientists have no choice but to learn how to counter the opposing views on biotechnology. She said that whereas the anti-GMO groups post have come to fully embrace the internet where they post lots of negative information on GMO, the proponents on the other hand hardly counter this and are at most lost when it comes to dealing with the media.

Speakers held views that to some extent, the anti-GMO voices have slowed down the non-existent of regulatory laws on the same yet they these groups were never ready to sit on round table with their opponents (the pro-biotechnology group) in an effort to clarify issues.

According to information from the US embassy in Nairobi on the visiting scientist, Prof Bruce M. Chassy has served as the head of department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illnois and has had his research work focusing on the characterisation and development of methods for genetic manipulation of microorganisms used in food and dairy fermentations. In recent years, Prof Chassy has become active in the development of strategies for food safety evaluation and their application to the setting public policy.

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