Are genetically modified food crops a trap for Uganda?

Tuesday May 27 2014
seeds08 pix

A farmer tends to his bananas. While it has been argued that biotech crops could help farmers overcome challenges in food production, this goal could probably be attained without these crops. FILE PHOTO

The year is 2064, one Hasiyo living in Mazimasa Sub county, Butaleja District, wakes up to a new day. As a farmer, he has plans to purchase seed for the upcoming season.

While he got a good harvest in the previous season, the maize variety he grows can only be grown once. He therefore has to take a loan from the Village SACCO to fund the purchase of seed. The price is astronomical with a kilogramme fetching an average of $10 (Shs25,000 at current rates).

High cost

Hasiyo relishes his days as a child when his parents used to save some of the previous season’s harvest of maize for planting in the new season. All he hears now is that those varieties that regenerate are now extinct.
Maize seeds are now made in a laboratory under patented technology from a private company in US thus justifying the high cost of seeds.

The private company that “owns” the seed technology put a levy on every seed sold and collects its rental dues from the franchised local laboratories in Uganda.

Broken promises


In fact, legally no one is supposed to improve those seeds without express authority from the American company moreover after signing an agreement to pay royalties.

Hundreds of kilometres away in Kampala, Dr Mutekanga, a leading practitioner in the medical field, is spending sleepless nights battling client ailments that were never that common in his youth.

He has an endless list of clients suffering from multiple chronic diseases and conditions like autism, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, among others.

In the farmlands of northern Uganda, Ms Olel, a successful maize farmer is now faced with the emergence of a new strain of superweeds that are resistant to the herbicide that she has regularly used in her GM (genetically modified) maize.

Apparently, the benefit she had been given for using the maize was that it could withstand high levels of herbicide concentrations thereby guaranteeing the death of weeds before the plant.

Due diligence
Unfortunately, weeds like any living organisms mutate and will always find a way to overcome life-threatening situations. This is costing her more money to deal with than she had allegedly been convinced she would save by adopting the GM maize.

The above are scenarios of where Uganda is heading if the GM crops are to be embraced without due diligence.

The goals of those private players fervently pursuing the GM crops agenda are veiled under seemingly innocent milestones like ending global hunger by increasing production.

As an eye opener of what is coming ahead, one of the world’s leading GM seed producer has an active policy of ensuring that all farmers using its seeds do not replant them.

Company property

This company mandates its agents to ensure that no farmer replants seed as evidenced in this extract from their website. “When farmers purchase a patented seed variety, they sign an agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from us … They understand the basic simplicity of the agreement, which is that a business must be paid for its product.”

So, in otherwords, the God given naturally bred seed is being turned into company property. Patents are ideally given on new creations or inventions.

Do these companies claim to have created the life that resides in these seeds? Will the Ugandan peasant farmer have a future with such tactics being undertaken?

Found wanting

Genetically engineered crops have been found to contaminate organic crops thus producing offsprings that have new and sometimes unexpected traits. The crop performance of the organic crops has been found wanting once contaminated by GM crops.

To add insult to injury, GM companies are suing farmers who are found to have genetically modified crops on their farms even when they did not willingly solicit the modification, which came about as a result of neighbouring farms with GM crops. The case of Percy Schmeiser vs Monsanto that was handled by the Supreme Court of Canada is one glaring example.

Dangerous links

This is likely to have a grave impact on the fate of the millions of farmers in Uganda whose livelihoods are highly intertwined with their organic seed crop. They stand the risk of being sued for unintentionally contaminating their crop with GM crops.

One of the leading GM seed producers also happens to be a herbicides manufacturer. The company links its GM seed modifications to its other products. Its seed has been developed to resist the herbicide that they made for weed killing.

This allows their herbicide ready crops to resist high concentrations of the herbicide thereby remaining alive while the weeds die off.

However, it has also been realised that the same herbicide is highly concentrated with the active ingredient Glyphosphate, which is ingested in heavy doses by the plants. Glyphosphate is known to create nutritional deficiencies and systemic toxicity according to Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

New problems

He states that glyphosphate is possibly “the most important factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases and conditions that have become prevalent in westernised societies” which could be autism, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, infertility, among others.

Dr Mercola expounds more on the effects of Glyphosphate on his website. The biotech industry could very easily turn food into poison.

The arguments of cost reduction for farmers when they grow GM Crops through use of herbicides for weeding is losing weight. Farmers that took on herbicide-tolerant GM crops are now struggling with the emergence of herbicide-resistant super weeds.

About 49 per cent of US farms now suffer from herbicide resistant super weeds. So, initial savings from reduced insecticide use have been eroded as Zac Goldsmith of The Guardian newspaper points out in his article.

No silver bullet

We certainly do not want to see the same replicated in Uganda. We already have enough traditional pests and weeds to contend with and having to deal with super weeds like is happening in the US will simply lead us into the shackles of global corporates willing to invest more money in fighting the super weeds, which are a creation of their earlier experiments.

As the debate rages on, I urge our law makers, the planners, scientific community and other actors to consider addressing the major bottlenecks in our agricultural industry before thinking that mass production of GM Crops wil be the silver bullet.

Different way

We currently have lots of challenges with farming systems, post-harvest handling, transportation, preservation, among others, which lead to the continued cycle of market shortages simply because the farmers’ produce cant reach the market as desired.

With vast unopened argicultural land in the neighbouring DR Congo and South Sudan, half the potential for production of organic produce has not yet even been reached in this region of Africa.

Let us remain original, let us preserve our organic produce. Problems of the developed world should not be imposed on the developing world. We can play our role in addressing global hunger in a different way.

The author is an ICT and agro entrepreneur

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