Kenyan pesticide makers attack use of GMO crops in Africa

By Joan Conrow

March 15, 2018

The organic industry’s economically-driven opposition to genetically modified crops has expanded to include a Kenya consortium that makes plant-based pesticides.

Though it’s been documented that Western organic industry groups stoke the fires of the anti-GMO movement and fund anti-GMO activists and researchers, the opposition by Kenya Pyrethrum Joint Venture (KPJV) and its marketing agent, Green Earth Trust, appears to be the first by an African industry promoting its own economic interest.

Pyrethrum is an insecticide made from the dried flower heads of chrysanthemums, a daisy-like flower grown commercially in Kenya.

Ironically, a popular anti-GMO narrative claims that multinational agrochemical companies have developed GMO crops primarily to boost sales of their pesticide products. Now KPJV is using anti-GMO sentiment to build a bigger market for its own pyrethrum products, which the US Environmental Protection Agency has determined are a “weak carcinogen” with “high toxicity to aquatic organisms.” As a result, the EPA regulates them as restricted use pesticides for crops — the same classification given to many synthetic pest control products applied in conventional agriculture.

The opposition was outlined in a letter to a high-ranking US EPA official that stated: “The emphasis genetic engineering places on transgenic seeds is an ethically contentious matter for which there is no general objective consensus in the scientific community and must not be imposed on Kenyans.”

The letter was accompanied by a press release that downplayed climate change as a major factor in Kenya’s declining yields and food insecurity “for which GMOS are constantly prescribed as the solution. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Instead, the press release proclaimed, “revival of Kenya’s pyrethrum industry is the solution in war on hunger and food safety.”

But KPJV and Green Earth Trust, which has marketing offices in Canada, the United Kingdom and the US, have vested interests that extend well beyond that one African nation.

The EPA last year granted KPJV permission to export its pyrethrum-based products to America, where they are used primarily in organic agriculture. In the 1980s, Kenya accounted for nearly 70 percent of the world’s production of pyrethrum, according to a Business Daily report, with just two percent of the supply used locally. Europe and the United States buy about 80 percent of Kenya’s product.

As The Daily Nation reported:

Despite this huge market, the sector has been reeling under huge debts due to years of mismanagement, corruption, theft and underfunding by the exchequer.

The press release goes on to state:

“It is our position, as Kenya Pyrethrum Joint Venture, that intensified food production, by itself, may not yield the desired results if regulations governing food safety in the country, from farm-to-fork, are not reviewed to enhance public health and environmental conservation through adoption of pyrethrum-based natural, organic pesticides, which are proven to be healthy, safer to humans and the environment and have greater knock-down effect on pests, compared to synthetics.”

However, as a Cornell University publication notes:

“The natural pyrethrins are contact poisons which quickly penetrate the nerve system of the insect. A few minutes after application, the insect cannot move or fly away. But, a ‘knockdown dose’ does not mean a killing dose. The natural pyrethrins are swiftly detoxified by enzymes in the insect. Thus, some pests will recover. To delay the enzyme action so a lethal dose is assured, organophosphates, carbamates, or synergists may be added to the pyrethrins.”

The press release did acknowledge that GM crops “might offer benefits” in terms of drought tolerance. But it went on to falsely claim that relatively little research has been carried out on the human and environmental safety of insect-resistant Bt corn. In fact, two new studies show that GM corn is not only safer and more productive than non-GM corn, but its cultivation creates a “halo effect” that benefits farmers who grow non-GM and organic crops.

The press release also offered a completely mistaken account of what happened with GM cotton in Burkina Faso, erroneously contending that the nation’s decision to drop the product was caused by poor quality due to farmers’ replanting the same seeds each year. In fact, Burkina Faso cotton producers provide farmers with new seeds and inputs every year, and the quality problem was due to a short fiber length.