By 2017 Uganda’s ratio of cultivated area under irrigation to the irrigation potential is only 0.5 percent. The country has one the highest irrigation potential in the world with over 15 percent of her surface area covered by fresh water resources.
The utilization rate of the entire renewable surface water resources of the country stood at 0.01 percent as of 2013. Well managed irrigation can mitigate effects of climate change and increase yields by 2 to 5 times for most crops. With developed irrigation infrastructure and water management, paddy yields on an average can increase from 1.8 tons per hectare to 4.5 tons per hectare.
In some trials, irrigation has enhanced maize production from 2 tons per hectare to 8 tons; 15.6 tons for vegetables to over 30 tons per hectare, on average. These revelations are in the opening pages of Uganda’s National Irrigation Policy. They indicate that Uganda has the opportunity to multiply several times over the current crop output by utilizing the potential in irrigation.
Currently, a law to guide the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is in the offing in Uganda. For yet another time,the bill was recently passed by Parliament and returned to them by the President, with queries.
A genetically modified organism, in the context of this article, is a plant or animal whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology to create combinations of plant and animal genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Proponents of GMOs quote statistics of increased food production and capacity to feed a growing global population, on account of the uniqueness of the modified species.
On the other hand, there are also a lot of publications pointing out relevant potential dangers of GMOs. For example, there have been studies pointing to the danger of GMOs for children, and warnings to keep genetically modified foods away from babies. Children’s bodies, on account of developing at a fast pace are said to be more prone to effects of GM foods.
A relevant scientific study done on adolescent rodents showed significant health damage after only 10 days of feeding on GM foods, including damaged immune systems and digestive function, smaller brains, livers, and testicles, partial atrophy of the liver, and potentially pre-cancerous cell growth in the intestines. Other scientists have contested such revelations, and also published their contestations.
There are also contentions regarding the extent of reliance of pesticides in the production of GM foods. There have also been reports indicating that GM food production extensively increases pesticide usage.
One such report was produced by Forbes in 2013 and indicated that according to the United States Department of Agriculture and United States Environment Protection Agency, the quick adoption of genetically engineered crops by farmers had increased herbicide use over the previous nine years in the USA. At the center of debate was the pesticide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Round Up.
Food and Water Watch found that the total volume of glyphosate applied to corn, cotton and soybeans increased ten-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012. Such high pesticide usage would imply escalation in development of Parkinson’s disease, asthma, depression and anxiety; attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and cancer, including leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Previously though, there had been explanations that GMO farming cuts down on the use of pesticides, resulting in ecofriendly farming activity. It later appeared that such a cut-down gets harder to sustain, with time.
In view of the above, one wonders why Uganda should embrace and promote GMO technology, dogged as it is with unresolved controversies and risks of a potentially catastrophic nature, when improved agronomic practices utilizing the unexploited potential for irrigation would give a safer solution to food security.
And finally, there is the more dangerous issue of terminator technology or suicide seeds which is part of the GMO agenda. It involves restricting the use of genetically modified plants by activating some genes only in response to certain stimuli, especially to cause second generation seeds to be infertile.
What form of food security is envisaged from promoting a scenario where farmers must always rely on supply of seed from agricultural biotechnology companies and cannot replant their harvested seeds? What if such companies later become too domineering and dictate hurtful terms against their then firm control over food production?
Does Uganda yield enough influence on the stage of global food politics to safeguard national food interests in such a scenario? These, and similar others, are very important questions we must answer.
Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and risk management consultant