Does Uganda really need GMOs?

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Does Uganda really need GMOs?

With its lush green forests, fertile soils, abundant rainfall and a surfeit of other sources of water, does Uganda really need GMOs? This is the debate that has gripped the land that was once described as the Pearl of Africa as the government pushes through a controversial GMO bill through parliament. Tom Oniro reports from Kampala.  

I am talking as an African woman; we still have our [traditional] seeds here. Must we lose them in the name of GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms]?’ yelled an unidentified woman at an anti-GMO gathering in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. “We are not ready to beg. African women don’t beg and we’ve large extended families [to feed],” she fumed. “I grew up a very healthy woman. I am a very fertile woman. Would I have produced twins if I ate GMOs? Are GMOs not a timebomb for Africa, and Uganda in particular?” the woman asked. 

The move to legislate GMOs in Uganda has been stone-walled by ordinary farmers who fear that when GMOs are introduced in the country, traditional organic foods and cultures would be eroded as farmers would have to buy fertilisers, insecticides, acaricides, equipment, and develop a dependency on the multinational companies who own and sell the genetically modified organisms. 

Thus when the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012, was taken to cabinet, the country was roused by allegations that some MPs and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) had been lobbied to ensure that the GMO bill was passed into law! 

The bill was taken to the floor of parliament by Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka on 5 February 2013 after cabinet approval on 3 October 2012. The Speaker then referred the bill to the Science and Technology Committee of the House, chaired by Denis Hamson Obua. 

The chronology of GMOs in Uganda dates back to 2004 when they first entered the country with the blessing of the National Council on Science and Technology, then said to have been under the chairmanship of Obua’s father. 

In 2011, Obua introduced a private member’s bill in parliament in furtherance of the GMO cause. A year later, the bill officially received government support when the finance minister re-introduced the bill to the House, but it was chased away. Undaunted, the persistent minister brought back the bill on 5 February 2013 and nine months later (in November 2013), it was deferred while MPs were despatched to consult their constituents. 

That same month, a local anti-GMO crusade was given a boost when Etem Iteso, a popular pressure group, walked to parliament with a 400-page petition complete with 20,000 signatures demanding a total ban of GMOs in the country. The group, led by Julius Ocen, kicked off so much anti-GMO sentiment that its reverberations are still being felt.

Ocen said GMOs were a “suicidal project” and its advocates did not wish Africa well. “When you look at people who are being fed on GMOs,” said Ocen, “you find people whose stomachs are about to touch their feet!” GMOs, he said, defy nature. “It’s not proper to introduce the genes of a frog to a fish or a crow to a chicken.” 

Africa’s fertile land and “untapped” market are believed to have caught the attention of the big American GMO firms, which are the main protagonists of selling GMOs to Africa. 

But the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that if Uganda adopts GMOs, the WFP’s imports of grains and cereals from Uganda will dwindle significantly. Uganda is a major supplier of maize and beans to the WFP. 

The veteran journalist-turned-political activist, Patrick Elobu Angonu, told the Catholic Church-run radio station, Delta FM, on 9 November last year: “We shall be enslaved by these GMO companies. We are not in a food crisis; we need our organic foods. Don’t enslave us, cheat us, kill us, and steal our resources.” 

Angonu’s other worry is that there are no protective laws to guard citizens against the eventualities that may arise following the consumption of GMOs. “We need a law that protects Ugandans,” he said. “If a person develops stomach problems after eating GMOs, there should be reparations [of which the bill is silent]. If white people are used to eating GMOs, they should not introduce them here.”

The Uganda Farmers’ Common Platform has voiced similar sentiments. “The GMO promoters have not said anything regarding matters of restitution – returning someone back to the position he was in before eating the GMOs,” the farmers group’s spokesman dramatically put it in Kampala.  

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