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In GMO debate, Uganda seeks to balance hope and fear

patterns of thought

After publicly supporting a bill that would have legalized genetically modified crops, Uganda's president is now calling for additional measures to address anti-GMO activists' concerns.

A research scientist stands outside a 'confined field' trial at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Kampala, Uganda.
Christopher Bendana
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  • Christopher Bendana
    Contributor

Scientists in Uganda had hoped it was the dawn of a new era in food security for a drought-prone region.

In October, Uganda’s legislature moved to lift a ban on genetically modified crops, a move that stoked both hopes and fears in a fiercely divided populace. Where proponents saw opportunity to lift a region out of a cycle of drought and crop failure, critics cautioned that the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the local environment could spell devastation for native flora and fauna.

Heeding those concerns, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign the bill when it arrived on his desk in December. Now, he has asked Parliament to work with the nation’s scientists to find a way to balance researchers’ hopes with anti-GMO activists’ concerns.

In the past Mr. Museveni has supported the technology and had previously urged legislators to pass the bill as quickly as possible. But in a letter to the speaker of Parliament, he expressed concerns about what might befall indigenous species like long-horned Ankole cattle and native crops like millet if the country began planting genetically modified crops.

The president’s combined concern and hope illustrate the spectrum of thinking swirling around GMOs in Uganda and around the world. However, they also suggest that the two viewpoints may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. In his eyes, at least, there are ways to open the door for GM crops to help alleviate the impact of drought on the region while taking steps to preserve the integrity of native ecosystems.

While scientists see this latest hurdle in the process as a stumbling block, activists have expressed gratitude that the president has elevated their concerns to a level that legislators cannot ignore.

“The president raised the issues we have been raising over time,” says Agnes Kirabo, the executive director of Uganda Food Rights Alliance and one of the country’s fiercest anti-GMO activists. “It makes me proud to see the fountain of honor reiterating our concern,” she says.

As in other parts of the world, anti-GMO advocates have raised myriad concerns, from worries that new strains designed to be grown with pesticides and fertilizers could lead to indiscriminate application of questionable chemicals to fears that international corporations will be the true winners of the introduction of GM crops at the expense of the Ugandan farmer.

Much of the current discussion revolves around the possibility of pollen from GM crops inadvertently cross-pollinating with wild and traditionally bred agricultural crops.

In light of that possibility, Museveni asked legislators to consider instituting a mandatory minimum distance between GM and non-GM fields, or restricting GM crops to greenhouses. As an ultimate hedge, he called on the country’s National Agricultural Research Organization and Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries, and Fisheries to establish a “Noah’s Ark” to preserve indigenous plants and animals.

Ms. Kirabo applauds those suggestions but wishes that the president had pushed harder.

“What budget percentage is allotted to gene banks in Uganda to help in conservation of our biodiversity? Can the scientists give the country confidence?” she asks.

She says she hopes the legislators will consider enacting a strict liability law to hold scientists accountable for any spillover effects from GM research. She argues that scientists are highly rewarded for their innovation through existing legislation and should also be held accountable for their mistakes.

The Parliamentary Committee of Science and Technology, which has been charged with revising the bill to address the president’s concerns, plans to recommend the establishment of a centralized national gene bank, committee chairman Robert Ssekitoleko tells the Monitor. Currently there are several mini-gene banks scattered among several government and institutional research centers.

To biotechnology advocates, the president’s concerns are being excessively amplified by fear. In most cases, scientists have considered and are taking steps to address these concerns, says Clet Masiga, director of the Tropical Institute of Development Innovations.

“In our view, if he had consulted the scientists, there would not have been any issues,” he says.

In his eyes, the potential that GM crops able to withstand disease and drought hold for Uganda and the broader region far outweigh the risks.

Ugandan farmer Richard Opio and his wife sort through their most recent harvest of 'super beans' that are being promoted to feed the hunger-prone African continent, in Nwoya, Uganda on Nov. 1, 2017. As hunger and climate change threaten parts of Africa, two bean 'gene banks' on the continent are pursuing 'super' beans that are bred to resist drought conditions.
Rodney Muhumuza/AP
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Ugandan farmers are accustomed to dealing with dry seasons but in recent years these periods have stretched in into longer more concentrated droughts. In 2016, drought-related crop failures plunged 1.3 million Ugandans into food crisis. Climate models suggest that these kind of droughts will become more frequent.

The effects of crop failures in Uganda reverberate throughout the region. Uganda exports grain to Kenya and South Sudan and is a significant contributor to the World Food Programme, which feeds refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. These nations are likely to feel the effects of Uganda’s GM research, whether it be a success or failure.

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