Monday January 6 2014

This country is not yet ready for genetically modified organisms

By Joachim Bibuli

The media has lately been awash with articles in support and against the Biotechnology Bill before Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. I wish to join the army of Ugandans in protesting the enactment of this Bill. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill has been heralded as the pinnacle of scientific agricultural research, government’s contribution to research funding notwithstanding.

It is without doubt that public sector research is the greatest source of innovation and is vital for national development. A developing country like Uganda is never short of problems that require the expertise of scientists to solve. Their innovations should, however, be informed by national priorities, needs and not foreign interests. The Biotechnology Bill will not address the problem of a rapid population growth not matched by increased food production, depleted soils, hostile climatic conditions and crop diseases, among others.

While it has been widely argued that GMOs are high yielding, food production will increase and match the high population growth, thus putting an end to hunger, the facts on the ground seem to be at odds with this assertion. As observed in a study by the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services, the yields of GM crops were not significantly better than conventional varieties.

In the study, ready soya bean seeds produced fewer bushels of soya beans than similar conventionally bred varieties. Furthermore, countries like Bangladesh that adopted GM crops and were able to match food production with population growth are still ravaged by hunger because hunger is not caused by lack of food but lack of resources to acquire the food.

A comparative study of research station yields and farm yields in Uganda revealed great variances with research stations returning yields higher than the national average. This is clearly an indication that knowledge and practices generated in the research stations have not been shared with the farmers and that we can improve our yields strengthening the agricultural extension system, not through adoption of GMOs.

Existing farming practices do not allow for the coexistence of GMO and non-GMO crops. It is common to find livestock in crop areas, a situation which will only increase the potential for contamination. The resource starved agriculture sector cannot marshal the resources to implement Segregation, which would lessen the risk of contamination as this requires the creation of buffer zones, sterilising harvesting, transport and processing equipment where it exists.

Lastly, GMOs are not pro-poor and don’t maximise benefits for them. And here is why. Genetic research is time consuming, costly and involves considerable financial risk. Companies that invest in such processes need to recoup their investments, just like any business venture. They do this by selling seeds to poor farmers in rural areas.

There is no doubt that the development of GMOs is profit motivated. Embracing biotechnology and GM crops will set us down a dangerous road. We can improve the conditions in agriculture by increasing the agriculture budget, strengthening the extension system to transfer knowledge from the research stations to the farmers and improving land management practices, among others, not by adopting and introducing GMOs.

It is my humble submission that until the Bill addresses the health, economic, social and environmental concerns associated with GM foods and biotechnology, it should be shelved.

Mr Bibuli is the coordinator, Centre for Information Policy in Africa.