UN climate change report makes biotechnology inevitable for Uganda

Friday September 13 2019

Isaac Ongu

Isaac Ongu  

By Isaac Ongu

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 1.5°C degree rise in global temperatures over the next 11 to 33 years.

Chief among them are the implications for agriculture and food production in the face of expected drought, reduced water supplies and increased pressure from plant pests and diseases.

The IPCC reported that the current food system supports the livelihoods of about 200 million people. To meet the steadily increasing demand by growing populations, the food supply has increased by more than 30 per cent over the past 60 years. Much of this higher production is due to greater use of nitrogen fertilizer, which increased by more than 800 per cent over the period, while water consumption for irrigation expanded by more than 100 per cent.

The question now is, how can we 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.

The use of biotechnology, in the form of genetically engineered crops and livestock, was one approach suggested by the IPCC.
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. Instead, our agricultural sector is mired in politics as other nations like South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi and even Kenya, move forward.

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 recognised that vulnerable populations, mainly the poor and most marginalised, are inadequately equipped to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change.
NCCP further recognised that as temperatures throughout East Africa rise, precipitation is expected to increase along with the frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, heat waves and landslides.


Uganda has been responsive in ratifying global policy initiatives. It 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 recognises biotechnology as a key tool that would contribute to conservation and preservation of biodiversity.

To further show commitment, 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. While 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 mechanisation. 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 Museveni’s declining to sign the Biosafety Bill into law impede Uganda’s ability to address the urgent global challenges emphasised in the IPPC report.

As the IPPC pointed out, the global situation is becoming increasingly urgent, and our window for responding is beginning to close. Uganda must decide whether it wants to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.

Mr Ongu is the executive director, Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development.