KAMPALA – The views expressed by both Hon Nsaba Buturo (NRM Bufumbira CountyEast) and Hon Silas Aogon (Kumi Municipality) in the PML Daily article Titled: “MPs support President’s rejection of GMO Bill” dated November 6 2019 indicated a serious lack of understanding by the parliamentarians why, in the first place, Uganda should enact a law on Biotechnology and Bio-safety. As was revealed in the article, the two MPs were speaking on behalf of the Parliamentary Forum on Ethics and Integrity.
They really believe that GMO or Modern Biotechnology is about profits and interests of multinational companies and superpowers. What misconception! Modern Biotechnology or GMO is actually about Uganda’s survival and economic development interests.
We have to remember that Uganda already has a National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Policy (2008) and that for nearly two decades Uganda, under the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), has been conducting research on crop plants produced through modern biotechnology aimed at overcoming our country’s persistent crop production and food insecurity problems which include pest infestation, incurable crop diseases, drought stress, and malnutrition, among others issues. (Dr Wilberforce Tushemeirwe, head of NARO, Daily Monitor 9 October 2015) NARO which is mainly manned by well trained agricultural research scientists is mandated to find solutions to our country’s farming technical issues such as crop and animal diseases, yield and breed improvement, increasing nutrient content of crops, soil health, among many others.
We should also remember that Modern biotechnology is not only about Genetic Modification (GMO) or Genetic Engineering (GE) which the Parliamentary Forum for Ethics and Integrity seems to be vehemently opposed to. Nor is it, really, about ethics and integrity.
Biotechnology is described by scientists as a technology which uses living things or parts of living things to make useful products that benefit mankind and the environment. In agriculture it is used to produce improved plant varieties. It is also used in medicine to produce antibodies and vaccines.
Many countries across the world are using the technology for industrial and economic development. Uganda wants to use modern biotechnology for national development and over the years it has invested heavily in training scientists and construction of state of the art biotechnology laboratories as well as funding research and development of improved crop varieties.
A visit to Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute by any doubting Thomas will reveal a modern biotechnology laboratory whose foundation stone was laid by His Excellency President Yoweri Museveni who is now hesitating to sign the bill. Modern biotechnology research is going on in quite a number of our NARO stations across the country under the funding of both the Uganda government and development partners. Modern biotechnology includes tissue culture, cloning, grafting, and genetic engineering (GE or GM) and a whole range of other innovations aimed at improving crop varieties with regard to their resistance to disease, yield enhancement, test improvement, pest infestation, drought, and nutrition. Modern Biotechnology is taught at Makerere University, UNIK (University of Kisubi), and other institutions of higher learning, not to mention its recent introduction in Uganda’s secondary school curriculum.
However, all countries engaged in modern biotechnology activities are required to have a regulatory law such as the National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill, which Uganda is trying to put in place. We are, in fact, trying to comply with an international agreement known as the Cartagena Protocol to which Uganda is a signatory. What the Parliamentary Forum for Ethics and Integrity are opposing is a protocol requiring all countries engaging in biotechnology to take appropriate legal, administrative and other measures at national level to implement their obligations under that protocol.
The Parliamentary Forum for Ethics and Integrity is also blind to the fact that Uganda whose population is among the fastest growing in the world is facing acute food production decline thanks to incurable crop diseases, declining soil fertility, land fragmentation, and negative
climatic conditions. In this country every woman produces 5.6 children and our population increase rate is only next to that of Gambia and Mayotte globally, according to the Washington based Population Reference Bureau. (www.prb.org) Banana which is a staple crop in Uganda is under threat of disappearing due to the incurable Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW). Dr Jerome Kubiriba who heads the Banana Research Project at Kawanda under NARO has revealed that Uganda’s annual $500 million worth production of banana has reduced to $350 million due to the disease. Using modern biotechnology (Genetic Engineering) the researchers have developed banana plants that are resistant to BBW which however remain in enclosed fields at the research centre because they cannot be passed on to Ugandan farmers to grow since Uganda has not yet passed the Uganda Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill into law. Banana is also under attack by nematodes and weevils for which biotechnology research has found a solution but the farmers continue to spend heavily on pesticides because government is taking too long debating the adoption or non-adoption of modern biotechnology.
Uganda, where ten out of every ten farmers grow bananas, is the leading banana producing country in Africa but we will soon lose that position because, according to the Uganda Biotechnology Information Centre (UBIC) production of the crop is declining at the rate of seven out of ten expected bunches due to BBW. Maize which is a staple food and an important livestock feed component is under attack by the fall army worm and stem borer. Its production is further proving harder due to frequent long droughts. Modern biotechnology research under NARO has developed drought tolerant and pest resistant maize varieties but they cannot be given to farmers to plant because the likes of Nsaba Buturo and Silas Aogon are against passing of the Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill. Eighty percent of Ugandan farmers grow maize which in the past generated an estimated $51 million annually to the country but yields have been reduced to about 40 percent in the recent years due pest infestation and drought. (UBIC) Uganda suffers from what Harvest-Plus, an international anti-hunger organization, refers to as ‘hidden hunger’ which is a form of malnutrition caused by filling the tummy with non-nutritious food.
Most poor households eat banana and sweet potato without other crops to gain such nutrients as vitamins etc. Using biotechnology scientists under NARO have produced pro-Vitamin A bananas which would improve nutrition in poor households. The country suffers an annual loss of $899 million according to the Cost of Hunger Report 2013 in addition to millions of working hours lost every year by people abandoning work because of malnutrition illnesses and burials of people killed by malnutrition illnesses.
Irish potato farmers in Uganda allocate nearly 50 percent of their in-puts to pesticides fighting the late blight disease. Consumers of the crop face the health risk associated with pesticides and the producers lose money and suffer reduced profits. Yet researchers in NARO through GMO research or Modern Biotechnology have developed pest resistant Irish potato which farmers can grow without using the costly pesticides. There must be a regulatory law in place for the farmers to be allowed to grow the pest resistant varieties but our government is delaying its formation and passing. Consumption of Irish potatoes is known to reduce malnutrition since in vitamin B6, minerals, and fiber.
(UBIC) Uganda is the leading producer of sweet potato in Africa. Sweet potato is a major food crop for both humans and livestock. Harvest-plus is B promoting the production and consumption of bio-fortified sweet potatoes enhanced with such nutrients as iron, zinc, and vitamin A which are highly recommended by the WHO as crucial for healthy living. Sweet potato production is declining due to virus diseases and weevil infestation. NARO is working to develop GM sweet potato that can resist virus and weevil attack.
We have issues with rice production related to poor soils and long droughts which according to UBIC is causing an annual loss of US$6.2 million as opposed to an estimated annual gain of US$19.9 million that would be possible if we grow GM rice. (UBIC) We also have problems with cotton production yet our cloth production industries are in need of revamping. It is GM cotton that has boosted the apparel industries in such countries as India and it is the reason our neighbour Kenya is soon adopting GM cotton production. Clearly Biotechnology is being used to address our national agricultural problems and not to promote foreign interests as Nsaba Buturo and Silas Aogon seem to think. It is even false to assert that we would not any foreign market for our products. Ask Brazil for example where it sells its Biotech products. Brazil – our coffee competitor — is the biggest exporter of GM crops to Europe.
There must be economic benefits to gain and it must be the main reason why such nations as the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, Paraguay, Pakistan, China, Uruguay, Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Spain, Mexico, Columbia, Vietnam, Honduras, Chile, Portugal, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Slovakia, and Czech Republic are growing Biotech crops. (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application — ISAAA) Here in Africa, South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Egypt are already growing Biotech crops, while Kenya, Ethiopia, and Zambia are just about to go into commercialization of Biotech crops.
Eating GM food is not harmful in any way to human health or the environment. Tobacco smoke, red meat, salt, and alcohol cause death every year and figures to that effect are available in nearly all countries. But not one death, not a single death, caused by eating GM food has been reported by the WHO or the FAO. No country has any credible research findings to prove that a death has been caused by GMO food. In May 2016 the US National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine released its twenty-year-research report into possible harmful effects of GMO crops and declared them entirely safe.
It was a comprehensive review of some nine hundred researches on GMO crops since 1996 and it revealed that GMO crops and ordinarily bred crops are have no difference with regard to possible risks to human health livestock health and the environment.
Irrigation which Hon Nsaba Buturo recommends will not stop BBW from reducing banana production, nor will it stop the fall armyworm. Yet planting of improved seeds which he is talking about comes with some exercise of Biotechnology.
MICHEAL J. SSALI is a veteran Journalist.