What you need to know:
Genetically modified crops have generated a great deal of controversy and the adoption of GM technology has had substantial socio-economic impacts.
After battling with drought that wiped out 14 percent of maize planted, a few months into office, President Ruto overturned a long-contested GMO Bill.
The narrative is that genetically modified maize (BT maize) will insulate Kenyans from future droughts seeing that maize is their staple food.
The move was greatly welcomed by GMO proponents such as Dr Jimmy Lamo, the head of the Cereals Programme at National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI).
According to Dr Lamo, this shows that scientists in Kenya have managed to explain to end-users the value and safety of the technology hence the president’s current stance. On the other hand, opponents believe Kenyans are misinformed and should they go the GMO route, not only will their citizens be affected but also the regional markets.
“Our borders are porous. If they are growing GMO maize along the Kenya-Uganda border, the Ugandan maize will easily get cross contaminated with the GMO gene which is not good,” Chariton Namuwoza, the chief executive officer of National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda (NOGAMU) says.
As activists against the use of GMOs back the President’s stand to ensure the GMO Bill is all encompassing, it is crucial to shine a light on what GMOs are to better understand what is in it for our country should we choose to take that route or not.
Dr Lamo says GMO is a seed developing process and can be done for local grain types such as Longe5, and hybrids.
“Genetic modification is the transfer of preferential genes from one organism (in this case crop seed) to another. For example, one can pick a drought resistant gene from barley and fix it in rice making that rice genetically modified,” he says.
Dr Andrew Kiggundu, the principal researcher at Nation Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) adds that GMO creates special characteristics in seeds.
“It is breeding new varieties and while it is predominately done among plants owing to the ease, animals and humans are also catching up,” he says.
Before GMO technology was cross pollination which was limited because one could not control the genetics picked. While there is a modification, there are characteristics picked that would rather be left out.
“With the understanding of how genes work, it is now possible to get just the characteristic of interest while leaving the others out. GMOs thus fill the gap that old breeding techniques left such as creating drought resistant crops, pest resistant crops because to-date, spraying, say tomatoes is a prerequisite for good yields,” he says.
Dr Kiggundu adds that the benefits of using GMO can sometimes be quantified such as in the case of the fight against banana bacterial wilt in 2015/16 where modified varieties were developed at Kawanda Research Station using GM tech. Based on the losses being incurred, scientists estimated economic benefits of Shs4 trillion in six years (app Shs800b per year) with an GMO approach.
“These benefits extend to cassava mosaic disease, potato late blight fungus (phytothora), drought in maize which saves farmers from losses in low yields as well as the chemicals needed to fight off the disease,” he says.
Genes from animals into plants
With some genes in this technology coming from other organisms to plants, many are unsettled about the idea but Dr Kiggundu says genes are the same, everywhere in life. The only reason why one may say the gene is from animals is because it was first discovered there. However, there is no difference in genetics.
“Genes are a blueprint of life and universal, and it does not matter where they are; organisms, animals, humans, plants; they will do the same thing. If a gene is resistant to bacteria in animals, the same is found in plants,” he states.
There are different GMO seed types as Dr Kiggundu explains.
Those got from traditional seed system methods (such as conventional open pollinated crops). With these, the farmer does not have to buy seeds every season.
There are also GMO seeds for which it is preferred to buy seeds every season because the yield advantages will be better if you did so.
The other is the vegetative type as is in matooke and cassava where you cut a piece and replant.
Not sold out
Namuwoza disagrees with GMO technology saying while the organic movement is pushing a pro-nature technology which fits within the natural ecosystem, the GMO proponents are trying to sneak in a tech that is against nature and therefore with several risks towards our health, environment and also unsustainable.
“GMO proponents need to clearly tell Uganda why some countries such as the European Union (EU), Uganda’s main international trading partners, have rejected GMOs. That is because there are health, economic and environmental risks associated with GMOs. Even the US, where GMO tech started, has tried to restrict, say GMO corn to value chains such as biofuel while limiting their entry in supermarket chains. There are also clear systems to ensure there is no contamination or cross pollination with GMO crops which are lacking in Uganda,” he says.
This is a major reason why many are against the technology saying scientists are playing God while denying farmers the ability to use seeds from previous seasons. However, Dr Lamo explains that it is impossible to stop, say a cassava stem or sweet potato vine from germinating once put near soil.
In regards to grains, there are genes that engineer dormancy in the seeds thus unable to germinate in case of delayed harvesting and that happens for all seeds.
“The terminator gene is an attempt by seed companies to control business by preventing growth and has nothing to do with GMO. However, among hybrid seeds, which are got through cross pollination, the harvest is never uniform. Some of the plants could look diseased, and others degenerate. That does not mean they have terminator gene,” he says.
Dr Kiggundu adds that every seed, even a GMO seed has the viability to reproduce but this viability can be reduced by some uncontrolled natural processes that can create some seed not to be as superior as the ones planted.
Seeing that GMO seeds are often unable to give ample yield when replanted, Namuwoza says that is enslaving the farmer to the company as they also determine the price at which the farmer buys the seeds.
“There is no GMO seed that can be replanted. Even if that were not the case, the technology is one sided, say dealing with wilt in coffee. That means the crop will need pesticides and herbicides to deliver on the other aspects. However, one of the herbicides used has glyphosate as an active ingredient which is carcinogenic. On the other hand, the organic movement presents a holistic approach where the variety can fight all the other diseases, withstand harsh conditions, and also give good yields,” he says.
This is what anti-GMO persons desire. But Dr Kiggundu says some of the precautionary measures are unrealistic. While those in the Western world live off the supermarket where everything is packaged and labelled, it does not work in Uganda.
“If you buy your food in a market or get some from your mother on visiting them, how are we going to label these? Even when eating from a hotel, how can you be certain which foods are GMO and those that are not? Critical thinking is necessary when enacting or implementing certain things but labelling of GMO foods is not practical in our setting inasmuch as it is in the law,” he says.
Some think GMO tech will help to deal with drought as well as feed the ever growing population. But Dr Kiggundu says it is a case by case situation because there are GMO seeds that are not necessarily for food security such as those for nutrition benefits. Therefore, we cannot solely bank on GMOs for food security.
“Our continued use of technology should not hinder progress. We move with caution and wherever we see a problem, we should make a quick change,” Dr Kiggundu says.