With climate change taking its toll on agriculture and ultimately trade and investment, some renowned researchers, scientists and sector analysts believe it is time for the country to rethink how to harness Mother Nature, recommending adoption and application of proven scientific technologies in solving challenges resulting to low yields, impacting production and eventually the country’s competitive advantage.
This matter (of climate change) made up the agenda of the fourth and final regional annual meeting held in Nairobi, Kenya under the promoting agriculture, climate change and trade linkages in the region project (PACT EAC2), a couple of weeks ago. But before that it has been almost a buzzword eliciting high emotions and misinformation from a segment of stakeholders.
Speaking in an interview, the Assistant Director of CUTS International, Mr Julian Mukiibi whose global organisation happened to be the brainchild of the Nairobi meeting where relationship between agriculture, climate change and trade became evident, noted that the impact of climate change on agriculture and trade is overwhelming, citing adoption of new scientific technologies among other solutions, saying they will be required for mitigation, adoption and elimination of hunger and food insecurity as well as for the survival of industry whose main raw materials depends on agricultural production.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a high-level science body of the United Nations mandated to offer evidence-based policy recommendations, recently issued a sobering report on the potential impacts of a by 1.5°C degree rise in global temperatures over the next 11 to 33 years.
One of the main dangers will be its effects on agriculture and food production in the face of expected drought, reduced water supplies and increased pressure from plant pests and diseases.
“The question now is how we can continue to meet the steadily rising demand for food while simultaneously reducing the climate change impacts linked to agricultural practices and meeting international goals related to sustainable development and poverty eradication,” Isaac Ongu, an agriculturalist rhetorically asked.
Dr Ongu who is also the Executive Director, Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development couldn’t agree more with group of eminent UN experts (IPCC) who recommended the use of biotechnology, in the form of genetically engineered crops and livestock, as one approach that should be taken on board.
If this happens, Dr Ongu, considering his broad experience in agricultural communications and trainings, believes Uganda could be in the enviable position of serving as a role model and leader in modern, research-based farming practices, including biotechnology, on the continent.
Sadly, he said: “… instead, our agricultural sector is mired in politics as other nations, like South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi and even Kenya, move forward.”
Over the years Uganda has at the very highest level indicated its commitment to implementing international protocol
Uganda in 2015 passed a National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) under the Ministry of water and Environment. The Policy envisioned that “Climate change is likely to disrupt the Earth’s ecological systems and have serious negative consequences on agricultural production and productivity, forests, water supply, health systems and overall human development.
It also recognized that vulnerable populations, mainly the poor and most marginalised, are inadequately equipped to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change, let alone recognising that as temperatures across East Africa continue to rise, precipitation is expected to increase, with devastating frequency and intensity, worsening droughts, floods, heat waves and landslides.
Uganda has also signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as early as 1992 and ratified it the following year. The CBD underscores the role of biodiversity in addressing the challenges of climate change, and strongly recognizes biotechnology as a key tool that would contribute to conservation and preservation of biodiversity.
To further show commitment, according to Dr Ongu, Uganda ratified the subsidiary protocol to the CBD, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, in 2002. This led to Uganda’s Biotechnology and Biosafety policy of 2008, which was meant to guide in the safe application of modern biotechnology.
“Unfortunately, the 2008 biosafety policy was followed by several attempts to adopt a biosafety law, all of which have collapsed on the desk of a President who keeps parroting the nonfactual, negative sentiments of anti-GMO ideologues,” says Dr Ongu.
Taking the heat
Sector players and analysts like interviewed for this article shared Dr Ongu’s argument that whereas government officials engage in these various policy rituals, ordinary farmers continue to suffer from incidences of drought, pest, diseases, decreasing soil fertility, declining crop productivity and nutrient deficiencies. Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture put the sector’s approximate growth rate at a stagnating 2 per cent for close to a decade.
This has been attributed to pests and diseases, low use of fertilizers, reliance on rainfall and low levels of mechanization. In its sector plan, the Agriculture Ministry promised to develop and implement a policy and regulatory framework for biotechnology in response to the 2008 biosafety policy.
The 2008 policy recognised the role of agricultural biotechnology in reducing the challenge of declining agricultural productivity resulting from drought, pests and diseases, and declining soil fertility.
Ugandan scientists, through public research systems, have responded to the urgent call of combating the glaring impacts of climate change on our vulnerable subsistence farmers. Crops tolerant to drought; efficient in nitrogen uptake; resistant to emerging pests like Fall armyworm; and resistant to diseases like brown streak disease in cassava, bacterial wilt disease in banana and late blight disease in potato, have been developed in government research facilities.
To combat deficiencies of micronutrients, banana rich in vitamin A and beans fortified with iron and zinc have also been bred for subsisting farmers and their communities.
In short, Uganda has crops that can address the very same challenges expressly mentioned in the IPPC report under food security, and farmers who are eager to grow them. But despite the patriotic response by Ugandan scientists and their colleagues elsewhere, political decisions like President Yoweri Museveni’s failure to sign the Biosafety Bill into law impede Uganda’s ability to address the urgent global challenges emphasized in the IPPC report.
Time is now
Sub-Saharan African countries, Uganda being one of them, faces multiple problems— climate change, population explosion and food insecurity. And for that, there is no better time to embrace biotechnology than now, according to some top continental scientist.
Harvard University professor, Calestous Juma, is one of the renowned continental scientists who has since warned that African crops are also becoming more susceptible to diseases and environmental challenges. Bananas, for example, which is one of the staple crop in Uganda and other parts of the Great Lakes region is threatened by among others the Xanthomonas wilt, a bacterial disease that is costing Uganda nearly $500m in banana losses.”
Given the importance of the banana crop here, he wondered why the country can afford to continue without a law on biotechnology?
Despite offering some modern solutions to emerging and imminent challenges, the law on biotechnology remains contentious.
In an interview with Agnes Kirabo, the executive director of Food Right Alliance, said the contentions are not whether or not it is offering modern solutions but it’s a narrow and rather unnecessary piece of legislation at this particular time. However, f0r scientists like Dr Philip Chemonges, the fear of the likes of Ms Kirabo is grounded on misinformation and fear mongering based on hypothetical risks and concerns.