Wednesday December 1 2010

GM crops threaten to replace natural seeds

Charles Ngabirano,  Parliamentary Committee of

Charles Ngabirano, Parliamentary Committee of Science and Technology Chairperson looks at Gt Cotton in the CFT in Kasese. 


It is alarming that the biotechnology industry and the governments that support them are pushing for Genetically Modified (GM) crops and food into Uganda without due regard to local communities’ livelihoods, bio-safety and democratic rights. GMOs such as genetically engineered maize, cotton and soya are rapidly finding their entry into agriculture, due to the growing influence of a handful of transnational agro-companies who are now controlling 30 per cent of the multibillion-dollar global seed market.

Such companies include DuPont (US), Monsanto (US) and Syngenta (Switzerland). Uganda has been established fitting, for testing genetically modified maize beneath the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) Project. This plan, supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto will build up drought tolerant maize for small-scale farmers’ “sovereignty” to solve the food insecurity problem in the country.

Patent rights
But we all know that with GMOs comes the issue of patent rights. What then will happen to the smallholder farmers that contribute 80 per cent to Uganda’s agriculture? GMOs can mean loss of farmers’ autonomy and greater dependency on the transnational corporations, both technologically and economically. Uganda has the latent to produce food for her population and even have surplus for export if the agricultural sector is prioritised.

The promoters of this plan sell a compelling message that GM crops are the answer to food insecurity and have the potential to boost food production and combat food insecurity. Yes, there are various underlying structural problems in the agricultural sector that need to be addressed, but resorting to genetically modified crops presents a whole dilemma to food security and food sovereignty that requires highly structured legal and regulatory framework.

Testing GMO maize will result into a permanent creation of a system of dependence and reliance on “maize varieties” every planting season; eventually jeopardising the traditional practices of smallholder farmers. The plan will lead many into perpetual poverty because of effects on sharing, saving and exchanging seeds as well as requiring them to paying for costly fertilisers.

Will GMO maize testing will be a silver bullet for Uganda’s poverty and hunger dilemma? GMOs will not form any part of Uganda’s solutions to problems but rather create more. Hunger and poverty are complex, requiring appropriate solutions that address social, cultural, political and economic factors including gender equality, equity, and power and resource control.

In responding to the needs of small holder farmers, the Ugandan government needs to take precautionary approaches to GMOs. The Wema project promises to supply seeds to smallholder farmers, but what is the predicament of these farmers if this subsidy is eventually withdrawn? At the end of the day, the multinational companies that invest large sums of money and time developing these varieties must get back their investment by making farmers utterly dependent on these “maize varieties.”

Traditional varieties will ultimately be stamped out by GM crops, thus the government needs to ensure that the gene bank is functional by preserving traditional seeds for future use.

Over the years, Uganda has been developing legal, policy and institutional frameworks to embrace benefits of modern biotechnology to address the country’s challenges in the agriculture sector. In 2008, the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy was passed to provide a guiding framework for the promotion of research and application of science and technology for national development.

It is critical that the government accelerates the process of enacting a law to clearly spell out institutional mandates for the effective application of biotechnology and to protect the interests of smallholder farmers in the country. The government should promote and strengthen capacity building and cautious use of these technologies to enable the population to understand their implications. Farmers should be encouraged to embrace use of improved (but not genetically modified) seeds, fertilisers and pesticides and low cost techniques like tillage.

The writer is an advocacy officer with Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM Uganda)