As long as I can remember from my childhood years to this day, one of the perennial sights that greets a visitor to my mother’s kitchen are heaps of assortment of seeds hanging to the ceiling above the fire place.
The piles that include sorghum, maize combs, and pumpkin seeds usually lose their original colour from the constant soot emitted from the fire place. When the planting season starts, the seeds that have been well preserved from weevil infestations are removed and planted.
Rudimental as this appears to be, it is a sustainable practice that has benefited subsistence farming in West Nile region for generations. Every year, my parents do not have to spend any money to buy these seeds because they have their ‘seeds bank’. But today, when technocrats and politicians talk of agricultural modernisation and boost productivity, my mother’s basic seed preservation practice is a dichotomy to what has been termed as Genetically Modified Organisms/Seeds (GMOs).
As Parliament works on a Bio-safety and Bio-technology Bill 2012, and indeed as President Museveni recently okayed the importation of processed GMOs during the opening of Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries GMOs laboratory at Kawanda Research Centre, we must question the relevance of GMOs to Ugandan farmers.
After virtually every initiative by the government to assist Ugandan farmers and improve their productivity through such programmes as Naads have miserably failed due to endemic corruption and mismanagement, what will be different this time around with either locally generated or imported GMOs to Ugandan farmers?
I could be mistaken, but I presume Ugandan technocrats and politicians are knowledgeable enough about the success of GMOs in developed countries.
For instance, in the United States, the Federal Government subsidies the cost of farmers’ agricultural inputs to the tune of $25 billion annually, according to US Department of Agriculture figures.
These subsidies help farmers to purchase agricultural machinery such as tractors, combine harvesters, GMOs seeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, cover electricity and gas costs, and helps cushion the farmers from unfair competition against cheaper agro-imports and crop failures from adverse weather conditions.
The bigger portion of these subsidies go to producers of five crops – wheat, corn (maize), soybeans, rice and cotton because the US government considers food as a national security matter.
This is why GMOs company – Monsanto is so popular in most developed world since farmers can afford to purchase new seeds every year from such a multinational monopolist.
Ironically, it is for the same reason that a study by the New York University School of Law found that every 30 minutes a farmer in India commits suicide because the farmers could not repay their debts to Monsato for GMO seeds, pesticides and herbicides supplied. Mind you, whether the harvest succeeds or not, the farmers are obligated to repay Monsato for the previous season’s inputs and get more new inputs from Monsato for the current season.
To modernise and boost agricultural production in Uganda, the farmers do not need imported GMOs. The government must first invest heavily in a sustained fashion to provide agricultural inputs such as fertilisers, tractors, reliable road networks for farmers to market their produce and loans at preferential and affordable interest rates to farmers to be able to purchase trucks, pick-ups and other farm implements. GMO products are not the magic bullet to sustainable and improved agricultural productivity.
Other factors such as opening up more farmlands with tractors instead of traditional hand-held hoe plough, improving soil fertility rates with fertilisers, controlling soil erosion and providing a mechanism for irrigation are front and centre to boost agricultural productivity.
One aspect of genetically engineered products some farmers are unaware of is the detrimental effect of Monsato’s pesticide glyphosate sold under trade name Roundup. Canadian scientists have discovered that Roundup is not only inherently too toxic to crops but also aids the spread of fusarium head blight in cereal crops like wheat and maize.
Besides, a study by European Journal of Agronomy confirms that Roundup, which Monsato often sells to farmers together with GMO seeds, renders soils infertile, crops non-productive, and plants less nutritious.
At the current stage in Uganda’s agricultural economic development, the government must admit that it is financially impotent to sustain the GMO seed strategy through subsidy to farmers as a means to boost agricultural productivity.
Does the government really want to condemn poor Ugandan farmers like my parents to GMOs, which do not grow back again next season but every year farmers must buy new seeds from monopolistic multinationals such as Monsato? Ugandan farmers deserve better.
Mr Asedri is a medical information and substance abuse technologist based in USA.