A farmer looks at a cassava plant at National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) demonstration farm. Naro and other government bodies such as Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) have been making inroads in GMOs research. PHOTOS/FILE

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Uncertainty after Kenya okays Genetically Modified food

What you need to know:

  • President William Ruto, who has been in office for weeks, reversed a decade-long ban after the worst drought to hit Kenya in 40 years left vast swathes of the country classified as food-insecure. 

After four failed rainfalls left millions of her citizens facing extreme hunger, Kenya, on October 3, gave the green light to the tilling and importation of genetically modified (GM) maize.

President William Ruto, who has been in office for weeks, reversed a decade-long ban after the worst drought to hit Kenya in 40 years left vast swathes of the country classified as food-insecure.

The decision has opened a Pandora’s Box not least because the East African region has stayed clear of GM technology. 

In Uganda, although two failed rainfalls have left 518,000 people from Karamoja Sub-region facing critical food insecurity, GM organisms or GMOs continue to split opinion. Uganda’s position on the same is muddled in uncertainty, with many government officials not sure what to say after President Museveni—for the second time—rejected the GMO Bill in 2019.    

Sources within government that Saturday Monitor talked to on condition of anonymity said relevant government bodies such as National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) and Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), which are coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), have been making inroads in GMOs research.  

“We have been doing a lot of research even if the President rejected the Bill. But without the law, you find that we can’t even reveal what we are doing,” a biotechnologist at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories, said.  

Despite being unclear on GMOs in the early 2000s, Uganda had crafted a biotechnology law that the government tabled as the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill in Parliament. Not much was, however, achieved by the time the 9th Parliament was dissolved in May 2016. 

The Bill—which Ugandan scientists backed on grounds that it would enable novel plant breeding tools in a race to develop crops that can resist drought, pests and diseases, whilst cultivating nutrition—was restored by the 10th Parliament in 2016. It was subsequently referred to the Committee of Science and Technology on November 5, 2016. 

Not sold on
Mr Museveni would go on to reject the Bill in December 2017. The President pointed out a dozen queries he wanted resolved. He, for instance, counselled Parliament to change the title of the Bill to GMO because it focuses on the regulation of genetically engineered organisms.

In 2018, Parliament passed the Bill as the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill after reconsidering Mr Museveni’s proposals. Mr Museveni, however, returned the Bill to Parliament in August 2019, insisting that emphasis should be put on the need to carefully formulate the country’s laws in a way that allows scientists to carry out research and make scientific breakthroughs. The President said this should be done while at the same time “safeguarding the beautiful ecology and diversity that God has bestowed on our country, as well as the interest of wananchi (nationals), who continue to depend on the land for their wherewithal.” 

The President had another demand before he could assent to the Bill. He said: “The law should clearly spell out how intellectual property rights and economic benefits will be shared with local communities.”  

Mr Museveni also pointed out that the Bill needed to have rigorous measures that will guarantee that GMO plants do not pollute the organic ones.   

“The law must clearly spell out the isolation measures, such as greenhouses and isolation distances that will be applicable for any person involved in genetic material research and production,” Mr Museveni wrote, adding, “The law must also address the penalties that apply to any person who fails to apply these measures and allows the co-mingling of GMO with non-GMO material.”

Mr Museveni also recommended the need for measures guarding against use of poisonous and dangerous viruses and bacteria, as well as the use of chemicals, like glyphosate that have been assumed to cause cancer. 

“This law should put in place safeguards to protect our soils from such contaminants. Specifically, we should prohibit the use of substances, like glyphosate, until we have developed our own scientific data showing that it is safe to use on our fertile Ugandan soils,” he said back then, adding that there should be a National Genetic Engineering Council under the Office of the President that should be tasked with running the rule over the GMO production.  

BT maize story
It should be noted that Uganda had made progress in GM plants research in the early 2000s, but the inroads were in a sense minimal. They evidently didn’t go beyond the Confined Field Trials (CFTs). For instance, efforts by scientists at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) to develop an improved GM maize variety that is drought-resistant and insect-resilient ran into the ground.

The NaCRRI is mandated to conduct, carry out research and knowledge generation on plants such as legumes, cassava, cereals and sweet potatoes. Its plans fell through because Uganda still lacks a biosafety law to guide commercialisation of GM crops. 

“We have completed CFTs for BT maize, but we cannot apply for environmental release because we don’t have a law to guide usage of GMOs in Uganda,” Dr Godfrey Asea, the principal investigator for the research and director at NaCRRI, told local press. 

The research on BT maize varieties shows that it uses a gene from a common soil organism called Bacillus thuringiensis to resist insect pests. The varieties are also resistant to both fall army worm, stem borer insects and drought-forbearing. 

As a result, scientists at NaCRRI insist that farmers who use BT maize could harvest higher yields and reduce their pesticide and water use.   

Ugandan scientists had also claimed that they had started ground work to develop GM bananas, but—with no enabling law—all this could go to waste.   

Last year, the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) said it was drafting regulations for GMOs with the aim of operationalising sections of the Nema Act, 2019. Nema, the section stipulates, may in consultation with the relevant lead agency (NCST) “issue guidelines and prescribe measures for the protection of the environment and management of risks to human health from the development, access, use and transfer” of GMOs and for liability and redress in relation to GMOs.

“Nema has the mandate to devise guidelines and measures to manage GMOs. So, I think we should abandon the idea of getting a GMO law,” then Nema executive director Tom Okurut said, adding that the regulations will have the contribution from the ministries of Agriculture, Water and Environment, and that of Science, Technology and Innovation, and other stakeholders.

GMOs are plants or animals whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology to create combinations of plant and animal genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. 

Splitting opinion
Advocates of GMOs insist that its usage would lead to increased food production and capacity to feed a growing global population. This is purely on account of the uniqueness of the modified species. 

Efforts by donors to expand use of such crops in Africa have, however, met resistance from various governments and small-scale farmers, who make up the backbone of the agricultural sector. There are concerns around food sovereignty, specifically over seed market dominance by few agricultural companies.

“GMOs are terrible. Any sane person or country must [steer clear of] them,” says lawyer David Kabanda, the executive director of Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights (CEFROHT).

Currently, only seven (Eswatini formerly Swaziland, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan) of the 54 African countries have approved the commercial production of GM crops. Only last year, the African Union (AU) revealed that it is coming up with guidelines on the use of GM crops across the continent.  
“While very sensitive, GMs are already in Africa, and some countries ... are using it at various stages,” Peace Mutuwa of the AU’s Agriculture and Rural Development Unit told Reuters last year.

Although it is unclear when the guidelines will be ready, supporters of GMOs insist they improve crop yields and food security, especially as farmers battle the effects of climate change. 

Without GMOs, the aforesaid supporters go on to add, Africa could find it hard to feed a burgeoning population anticipated to approximately double to 2.5 billion by 2050.

Anti-GMO activists on their part dismiss this as blackmail, saying GMOs advance the interests of corporate entities.   

“The international community has always introduced that issue of food insecurity, but when you bring in the issue of GMOs, then the issues become commercial,” Mr Anthony Wolimbwa, the national coordinator for Climate Action Network Uganda, said. 

He added: “While GMOs might address food security in the short term, they have a long-term negative impact on the ecosystem. There is a high risk that we could lose the indigenous crops and also lead to the emergence of new pests and diseases because by their very nature, they are designed to kill off certain pests. So, what if the pests become resistant to that, what would they do to the indigenous crops?” 

The most worrying part, according to activists, is that GMOs are engineered in a way that they can’t be replicated.  

“It ties the farmers to the capitalists in the seed market,” Mr Wolimbwa said. “In other words, our farmers under GMOs would be dependent on markets to access seeds. Right now, you can’t plant tomatoes that you have not bought from shops, but initially you would just go and buy tomatoes in the market, pick out the seeds and replant for the next season. That is the same with maize. Now if you plant maize which is not from the market, it will not perform the way you want. These things have been engineered to be used once and then they create a commercial element around them.” 

Eron Kiiza, a lawyer interested in environmental conservation, echoes Mr Wolimbwa’s concerns. 
“I’m opposed [to GMOs) because they threaten indigenous species of crops and make us slaves to crop markets. I doubt they are as healthy,” Mr Kiiza told Saturday Monitor.  

Uproar in Kenya 

Kenya’s move to allow GMOs came after pests known as stem borers caused a loss of 400,000 tonnes of maize yearly, which is about 14 percent of the maize planted. This consequently pushed the price of maize meal—a staple for many in the country—to prohibitive levels. Scientists in the country were quick to push through a narrative that BT maize can insulate the market against such unpredictabilities—like the stem borers—that occasion food vulnerabilities. It is an argument that has found favour with the Ruto administration. Unsurprisingly, there has been an immediate backlash from the Opposition alliance, Azimio la Umoja.

“Our genetic generic seed company and small-scale farming risk dying out as a result of unfair competition from subsidised GMOs. Kenya lacks adequate capacity to test GMOs … Food security should not be premised on maize consumption alone... even if our farmers adopt the BT-maize seed, this will not bring down the cost of maize since the price is artificially manipulated,” Mr Kalonzo Musyoka (pictured), a key figure in Azimio la Umoja, said.  

“We are surprised by the silence of the Church, which was once against GMOs. Could it be that they are pacified by the new administration... we urge our religious leaders not to sell their souls but to speak the truth to power.”

Authorities and activists have already hit out at Nairobi for being insular minded when lifting a ban on GMOs.   
“They have taken a wrong approach to such a contentious issue. It is not simply about ensuring food security in times of drought, as they seem to think,” Constantine Akitanda, an activist with Dar es Salaam-based lobby African Organic Network (AfroNET), was quoted by the East African.

When he was in Kampala to celebrate Uganda’s 60th Independence, President Ruto said he had instructed his Trade minister to work with their counterpart in Uganda in a bid to formulate and sign a guided trade agreement that will facilitate the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to become a reality. The end goal, President Ruto added, is to harness the opportunities for investment, trade and for people to work together in our region.  

“There is absolutely no reason why food cannot be available in our region,” President Ruto said, adding, “If there is food in Uganda, it should be able to find its way to Kenya. If there is an opportunity in Kenya, Ugandans should be able to access that opportunity.” 

Trade in the region
It remains unclear whether Kampala will welcome GMO exports from Kenya as Mr Museveni’s Cabinet is yet to give an official response. A few observers, nevertheless, fear that the porous border that the two countries share could render any government response useless.
Elsewhere, Tanzania was quick to assert that it is still opposed to the use of biotechnology in food creation and will institute stringent measures to keep out GM products coming out of Kenya. 

Background

GMOs are plants or animals whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology to create combinations of plant and animal genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. 


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