Organic, GMOs food battle leaves Uganda at a crossroads 

A maize farmer explains how he manages to get bumper harvests in Luwero District in 2019. With traditional seed varieties are said to be hampered by climate change effects,  scientists are now encouraging the planting of improved varieties. PHOTO | LOMINDA AFEDRARU

What you need to know:

  • Scientists say with the growing effects of climate change, it is necessary to develop the suitable seed varieties. However, activists says there are dangerous sides to using genetically modified seeds that their proponents neglect to tell farmers, writes Gillian Nantume.

In Uganda, subsistence farming is a way of life. According to the Uganda National Web Portal, 60 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, forestry and fishing. But climate change is slowly upsetting the norm.

Unpredictable rain patterns, decreasing amounts of rainfall, flooding and the increasing frequency of droughts mean small-scale farmers must be swift to adapt technologies that promote climate smart agriculture (CSA).

Last month, Ms Prossy Nakanjako, a small-scale farmer in Gomba District, central Uganda, contemplated abandoning farming because the unreliable rainfall had affected her household income.

“I planted beans and cassava during the first farming season. Unfortunately, the rains came late, and then, in large quantities within a short time. I lost the entire crop of beans. I could have sold those beans to boost my income. Maybe it would be more profitable for me if I abandoned farming and took up petty trade in Kampala City. At least in petty trade, the profits are reliable,” she says.

Like many small scale farmers, Ms Nakanjako is still highly dependent on traditional seed varieties. When traditional seeds are planted, their chances of germination are easily affected by climate vagaries, such as flooding, little rain or drought, and this greatly decreases a farmer’s harvest, thus affecting their incomes.

Decreasing yields have a multiplier effect on food prices.  A 2021 Twaweza Sauti za Wananchi nationwide survey, revealed that a number of Ugandans experienced critical food shortage, with four out of 10 households (37 percent) going without a single meal a day.

Ms Nakanjako would easily fit in those statistics. Until recently, she has had to rely on the generosity of her relatives in Kampala City to make ends meet.

“When the crop failed, my husband and I could not take care of our four children. They did not attend the second school term, but they had to eat. Sometimes, a relative would send me Shs10,000, which I would stretch to feed us for a week. We would eat one meal a day – posho and greens. Those who got hungry later in the day, ate mangoes,” she says.

Adopting technologies 

Over a period of 17 years, the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCCRI) has been at the forefront of researching, breeding and distributing seed varieties that are suitable to a changing climate.

Mr James Kerchan, a farmer, shows cassava tubbers attacked by a disease in Nebbi District in November 2020. Proponents say GMOs are resistant to pests and diseases.  PHOTO | PATRICK OKABA

Dr Godfrey Asea, the NaCCRI director of research, says the institute has released a range of seed varieties, which have built resilience to climate change.

“We started to channel our research towards climate smart technologies in 2005. At the time, many people told us Uganda is a green country and there was no need to adapt to climate change. But now, we have frequent droughts and floods, and as a result, new pests and diseases. We are fighting these problems with new seed varieties,” he says.

Dr Jimmy Lamo, the head of the Cereals Programnme at NaCCRI, says the improved seed varieties from NaCCRI are being distributed to areas facing the effects of climate change.

“We have drought-resistant seed varieties for rice, maize, legumes and millet, and also seed varieties that are tolerant to flooding. The rice varieties include NARO Rice 1, which can grow in drought conditions, NARO Rice 2 and NARO Rice 3, which can successfully germinate even when there is flooding. Our maize seed varieties include Bazooka and Longe 10, which are drought tolerant and produce a good harvest. All these seed varieties are resistant to diseases and pests and have been bred to be harvested in 100 days only,” he says.

With rice, besides using the improved seed varieties, the researchers are encouraging farmers to use ratoon rice technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rice fields are a concern to scientists because they produce long-lasting greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide.

“With ratoon technology, when the first crop of rice is ready for harvesting, the farmer cuts it at a level of 20-25 centimeters above ground. In this way, a second and third rice crop can be produced from the stubble left. Farmers practicing this method can harvest many times from the same crop,” Dr Lamo says.  

Mr Richard Okecha harvests Irish potatoes in his garden in 2016. GMOs are said to produce more yields in harsh climatic conditions compared to the traditional varieties. PHOTO | FELIX WAROM OKELLO

With ratoon rice technology, a 2019 review found that with good crop management, the second and third harvest is equivalent to 60 percent of the first harvest. Here, the farmer harvests many times from the same crop and only uses very little labour and resources. Rice ratooning also improves the quality of the rice grain.   

With the improved seed varieties, the yields are much higher when coupled with other climate smart technologies, such as irrigation, crop rotation and the use of precision fertilizers techniques. With precision fertilizing, the chemical is drilled directly into the roots to prevent it being washed off when it rains

Currently, there is a global demand for organic crops which are grown without the use of synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. The largest market of Uganda’s organic produce is the European Union, with our produce fetching about $51m (Shs193.8b).

Mr Chariton Namuwoza, the chief executive officer of the National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda (NOGAMU), says to fight climate change, organic farming does not discourage the use of improved seed varieties.

“To the best of my knowledge the drought-resistant or hybrid seeds on the market are not genetically modified. Organic farming does not exclude the use of improved seeds, improved technologies, high-yielding seeds, or drought-resistant seeds, as long as they are not genetically modified. This is because while the improved seed varieties can increase the farmer’s yield, genetically modified seeds pose health risks to the consumer and the environment,” he says.

According to Mr Namuwoza, Uganda today has 210,352 organic farmers, which puts it next to India as the world’s second country with the highest number of certified organic farmers. He insists that organic farming also has the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Organic farming techniques, such as crop rotation, application of manure and planting cover crops, also mitigate uncertainties in climate because they increase the fertility of the soil. The crop yields are higher and this has improved the incomes of farmers, especially those who export their produce,” he says.

The challenge of climate smart seeds

Today, about 60 percent of the maize and rice being grown in the country is of improved variety for climate resilience. However, surprisingly, Ms Nakanjako has not heard of these improved varieties.

“The seeds I plant are what is left over from the previous harvest. Sometimes, we buy seeds from seed shops in Gomba town. None of my neighbours have used these new seeds you are talking about because all our crops failed at the same time. But, I would be eager to use seeds which can grow even when there is no rain. Where can I buy them?” she asks.

Dr Lamo agrees that while NaCCRI has made a lot of progress generating technology, applying it for commercial use is a challenge.

“Branding and advertising are still a challenge to us. Our biggest hurdle is availing our seeds to farmers. A few years ago, we had demonstration farms where farmers attended workshops and afterwards, got new seeds. Those farms are gone. Now, there are business people on the market who have the capacity to sell large quantities of seeds to farmers yet those are just traditional seeds – not the best seeds,” Dr Lamo says.

Another challenge is the ban on genetically modified products on the market because some seed varieties have been bred using biotechnology.

“Some of our new technologies have been developed as genetic modification organisms (GMOs). For instance, we have GM drought-tolerant maize, rice and cassava. However, we cannot release these seed varieties to farmers because there is no conducive regulatory environment to permit us to go beyond research,” Dr Asea says.

Ms Namuwoza says there are dangerous sides to using genetically modified seeds that their proponents neglect to tell farmers.  “Firstly, using genetically modified seeds requires intensive use of synthetic chemicals, which are harmful to our health and the environment.

Secondly, the farmer is required to buy seeds every season. He or she cannot save seeds from the previous harvest to plant in a new season. This is expensive, especially if the harvest has been a bad one,” he says.

Another issue is that many elite or conscious consumers will not want to buy genetically modified food.

“Our biggest trading partner is the EU, which does not buy or encourage the growing of genetically modified seeds. If these seeds are introduced to the Ugandan farmer, it means they will be blocked from selling their produce to lucrative international markets. So, you will be locking the farmer at the farm, enslaving him by making sure he buys seeds every season but the consumer market is restricted to a few, who dictate the price,” Mr Namuwoza says.

Such is the debate on genetically modified organisms that in 2017 and 2019, President Museveni declined to sign into law the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012, which would have paved the way for the release of GM seed varieties.

In his letter to Parliament rejecting the Bill, the President hinted that in its current form, it promotes commercial interests being driven by the private sector while ignoring the need to protect ordinary Ugandans from potential harm on health matters.

The President wrote: “We must have a law that allows our scientists to carry out research and make scientific breakthroughs that at the same time safeguard the beautiful ecology and diversity that God has bestowed in our country as well as the interests of the wanainchi (citizens), who depend on the land.”

Dr Lamo adds that a lack of resources is hindering further research activities. “We need to invest in anticipatory research. We need to know what is likely to happen in the future so that we can develop crops that can match those climate conditions. This is what is being done in Europe. We need to urgently address the issue of too much rain within a short time and flooding.”

 Heavy investment in climate smart agriculture is also needed to incorporate ICT into forecasting the weather, predicting pests and diseases, and using satellite data to develop crop calendars to guide farmers.

Agriculture is still the mainstay of the economy.  However, resilient agriculture does not happen in a vacuum. The government needs pro-active policies and adequate funding for adaptation and mitigation projects.

Also, resources are needed to provide information about the new seed varieties to the public and to avail them. In this way, small-scale farmers like Nakanjako would not be forced to consider abandoning a sure livelihood for an uncertain future.

MPs oppose move

A section of MPs is planning to introduce a bill prohibiting Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Led by Bufumbira County East MP James Nsaba Buturo, the lawmakers announced the plan during a press conference in Parliament on Friday, October 14. 

Mr Nsaba Buturo said 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.   

“We will be making a very strong case in Parliament when the time comes. 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,“ he said.