Farmers have strongly rejected the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds in Uganda, saying with their introduction is detrimental to the indigenous seed. At a meeting of farmers’ groups, organised by Pelum Uganda, held at Colline Hotel in Mukono last week, it was noted that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not the solution to the food challenges in Uganda or in Africa, instead, they pose more problems.
They worry because GM crops transfer seed ownership into private hands and because there is great uncertainty surrounding their safety and impacts.
However, farmers who comprise 80 per cent of the population face an uphill task to reverse the trend of enacting laws that permit the release of GMOs on the market, because the promoters of GMOs are moneyed companies.
“The protection and preservation of indigenous/traditional seed is fundamental in ensuring food security,” read a joint statement from farmers, but the multinational companies pushing GMOs are driven by commercial interests.
Mr Robert Tumwesigye, the director of Pro-Biodiversity Conservationists in Uganda, said GMO trials in Uganda were done hurriedly and the absence of the law guiding the technology did not make matters any better. “GMOs have come but they are a false hope to food security,” Mr Tumwesigye argues. “Their introduction is being done hurriedly and haphazardly, for example open field trials started before the legal framework, so there is no protection for any problems that arise.”
But GMO proponents say advantages of GM crops include, among others, higher yields, herbicide tolerance, insect resistance and virus resistance. And future traits could include nutritional enhancement, extended shelf life for food products, and better water retention capacities.
However, Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher of Econexus, who has done extensive research on GMOs and who represents the Federation of German Scientists at international biosafety negotiations, said the negative impacts of GMOs on health, environment and food security should not be underestimated.
She told farmers, representatives of agriculture-based organisations and lobbyists at the meeting, that for the last 15 years, the developers of GMOs, mainly multinational companies, have worked hard to weaken biosafety regulations at the international level.
Haidee Swanby, a researcher for the African Centre for Biosafety said that the purpose of multinationals who have acquired rights to produce GMOs is to make profits by controlling the rights of propagation, making the small-scale farmers dependent on the seed producer by not allowing them to replant harvested seeds, as it has been for generations.
Ms Swanby accused multinational companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Cargill of introducing GMOs in the guise of development projects.
“In the past year, we have seen increased effort by Usaid pushing for regional approach to enacting area-wide bio-safety legislation throughout the common markets in Africa (like) Comesa, SADC and EAC. These bio-safety legislations aim to open the door for the GMOs rather than to ensure protection of environment and human health.”
She adds, “Even in countries where legislation has not taken effect, the GMOs are coming in as food aid.”
Pointing at the environmental and food security risks of GM crops, Dr. Steinbrecher said, “There is no need for GM in agriculture, as breeding combined with innovative and agricultural practices are better equipped to meet the challenges ahead. Breeding has, for example, already resulted in drought-tolerant maize, vitamin A-rich millet or flood-tolerant rice. And agro-ecological practices like organic practices with multiple cropping have shown that yield can be up to double without using any agrochemical inputs.”
She observed that, “There are many uncertainties surrounding genetic engineering and it can lead to many unpredictable side effects, including the production of more or new allergens, toxins and anti-nutrients. Using feeding trials, clear negative health effects have been observed in animals fed on GMOs.”
Among others, there is disturbance of liver, pancreas and kidney functions. In many cases, animals that have been fed on GMOs had stomach and gut problems, such as inflammations, ulcerations and excessive growth of stomach and gut lining. She explained further that blood tests have revealed immune reactions and decreased levels of red blood cells, and the animals were found to have altered body weight. “There is a clear need for labelling of GM foods not only as a matter of choice but also to enable monitoring of health effects.”
Uganda is so far testing GMOs in areas of Bt cotton in Serere and in Kasese, banana at Kawanda, maize under Wema at Kasese, cassava at Namulonge and plans are under way for trials in rice and sweet potatoes at the Namulonge research institute.
The crops on these trials cannot be released on the market after the trials because there is no legal framework in place to regulate their use. But, there is a push for GMO-related bills to be passed in several countries.
Mr Tumwesigye says, “To avoid the impending catastrophe, the government should take caution before introducing GMOs.”
Multi-nationals, farmers say, have been sponsoring the passing of weak laws to introduce genetic engineering in various countries.
In Africa, for example, Parliaments in Kenya, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt have passed biotechnology bills into law, and the latter three are already growing GM crops commercially.
However, there is reasonable belief that Bt cotton has been hazardous to health. In India, according to Dr Steinbrecher, five villages have been surveyed and doctors found that farmers who inhaled or were exposed to Bt cotton developed, among others, skin problems, itching, eye problems and upper respiratory tract symptoms. About GM cotton production in India, Pakistan and China, she revealed that the farmers growing GM cotton over a period of four to five years had encountered serious problems with secondary pests, such as mirids and mealy bugs requiring intensive use of expensive pesticides or even leading to the loss of whole crops.
On the other hand, Ms Lee Aruelo, a lawyer from Third World Network, highlighted that there is an international protocol governing GMOs. She said, “The soul of the protocol is a precautionary approach. It recognises that GMOs are fundamentally different to their conventional counterparts and introduce scientific uncertainty.”