Why GM crops threaten to replace natural seeds

A woman in her maize garden. The growing population is putting pressure on scientists to devise ways of ensuring food security. With land declining in availability and productivity, scientists are looking at options of manipulating crop genetics to enable food availability.  

What you need to know:

  • The growing population is putting pressure on scientists to devise ways of ensuring food security. With land declining in availability and productivity, scientists are looking at options of manipulating crop genetics to enable food availability. 

James Mugerwa is a smallholder peri-urban mixed farmer in Mukono District. The retired extension worker applies organic practices on his farm. It is a skill he inherited from his parents.
“During the lockdown in 2020, I got the highest yield of maize from my farm. This is because all children were at home and I had the manpower to apply manure to the garden effectively,” says Mugerwa, an advocate of organic agriculture, who owns a one-and-a-half-acre garden in Kabembe, Mukono District.
Mugerwa does not use chemicals on his crop mix of bananas and seasonal crops of maize and beans.

“There is no way you can keep seeds from the previous harvests as it used to be. The hybrid crop varieties can only be planted once,” he says.
Many farmers, just such as Mugerwa, have no control over their farming operations and have to keep buying seed, artificial fertiliser or pesticides to keep their farms productive. This scenario has tremendously increased the costs of production.
Rukiga Woman MP Caroline Kamusiime Muhwezi said in a recent meeting in Kampala organised by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) that when farmers cannot control the seed system, it puts a lot of pressure on their operations. 
“We need to find a way of restoring our traditional seed systems or else we risk the hell of hunger,” Kamusiime said.

The legislator’s fear is that for smallholders, the use of Genetically Modified seeds (GMOs) as a solution to fight hunger and meet food demands of the growing population, could lead to dependence on agribusinesses that produce seed and agrochemicals.
Currently, seed and planting materials take a significant share of the farmers’ earnings every season making it a profitable business to the agro dealers. Typical seed costs on a per acre basis is around Shs260,000 for maize, Shs100,000 for beans, Shs65,000 for sunflower and Shs180,000 for soybean depending on the desired plant population, variety and seed quality. The situation is punishing the farmers as market prices for their produce are bought cheaply. 

Food security 
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), almost one fifth of Uganda’s population suffered severe food insecurity in 2020. The World Bank estimates that half of the population was moderately food insecure after the second coronavirus lockdown in 2021. With the population estimated to grow at more than three percent annually, the race against time to produce food is obvious.

One reason for persisting food insecurity is the climate crisis manifested by long droughts or floods.
For scientists, ensuring food security means engineering crops that are resistant to disease and drought.
According to the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), Uganda has a number of GMO crops under testing by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) to boost farm productivity and fight hunger.
Naro, which was established in 2005 joined the “Feed the Future” initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) in 2020.

The idea is to promote technologies that deliver higher yields and more nutrients, not necessarily based on genetic engineering. Previously, USAID had introduced a non-GMO orange-fleshed sweet potato with high vitamin-A content in Uganda.
Currently, Uganda has an extensive research and confined field-testing programmes for GMO crops that include disease-resistant potatoes, cassava, and bananas; vitamin A-fortified bananas and cassava; insect-resistant cotton; and drought-tolerant rice.

Warming up for GMOs
GM technology allows the transfer of genes for specific traits between species using laboratory techniques. Scientists created the first genetically modified organism or GMO in 1973.
The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species. One of the stated objectives is to improve crop protection. 
The GM crops available on the international market today have been designed using one of three basic traits: resistance to insect damage; resistance to viral infections; and tolerance towards certain herbicides.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present any risks for human health.
But scepticism abounds. According to Million Belay, AFSA general coordinator, GM foods have negative impacts including obesity.
Other identified potential risks associated with GMOs include unexpected gene interactions, cancer risks due to high amounts of pesticide residues, allergies, horizontal gene transfer, antibiotics resistance, biodiversity threat and environmental risks.

Hesitation to adopt GMOs in Africa stems from concerns for food safety, ethics, and environmental risks, loss of biodiversity and lack of regulations. Furthermore, Africa exports a large number of agricultural goods to European nations, and many European consumers prefer to avoid GMOs. 
Because of this, the majority of African trading partners stick to traditional crop varieties.

Safeguarding against GMOs
Owing to safety concerns, countries have established biotechnology regulatory guidelines that enable the adoption of GM crops and their derived products in accordance with the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Convention on Biological Diversity guidelines. In Uganda, the legal framework is still a far cry limiting scientific work.

In 2017 and 2021, President Museveni declined to sign into law the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012.
The Bill, formerly called the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 has now been renamed the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill 2018 following a recommendation by President Museveni. 
Parliament initially passed the Bill in 2017. The bill seeks to provide a regulatory framework that facilitates the safe development and application of biotechnology, research, development and release of genetically modified organisms.

Bufumbira County East MP, James Nsaba Buturo, says that Ugandans need to reject any plans to introduce GMOs in the country, saying that GMOs pose health risks as well as a danger to the environment.
“If we fail to contain GMOs, we are finished. We know it is going to be a big fight. Those people will use a lot of money but we believe that with God on our side, we shall defeat them,” says the anti-GMO legislator.

GMOs crops under development
Insect resistant cowpea
Cassava resistant to mosaic virus 
Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA)
Vitamin fortified cassava
Vitamin A fortified banana
Potato resistant to late blight disease
Drought-tolerant maize
Drought tolerant and insect resistant maize
Water efficient maize for Africa
Vitamin A fortified sorghum
Vitamin A fortified sweet potatoes
Virus resistant sweet potatoes