The case for GMOs in Uganda

News & Analysis

The case for GMOs in Uganda

In response to the article “Does Uganda really need GMOs?” , Michael J. Ssali reports from Kampala.

On 21 May 2014 the Daily Monitor (a local Ugandan daily) carried a photograph of a woman in Karamoja climbing a tree to get wild fruits to feed her family. A local television station, the NTV, had a few weeks before filmed graves of people who had died of starvation in that region.

According to some press reports an estimated 50 people died in the dry period. The rains had failed and all the crops planted by the farmers in the region had dried up. Elsewhere in western Uganda a river had burst its banks due to heavy rains and the flooding had displaced thousands of people and caused untold damage, including washing away a hospital and a few schools. Extreme weather incidences such as these in Uganda, manifested in the form of severe droughts and floods, have become more frequent in recent years, resulting in reduced national agricultural production.

The country, where the average woman gives birth to more than six children, has the fastest-growing population globally, after Niger and Mayotte. However, its food production is not growing as fast as its population. Due to population pressure, farmers are working on smaller plots caused by land area fragmentation. The soil is exhausted and due to financial limitations most farmers are unable to access high-yield seeds, fertilizers or to carry out irrigation. Some of the country’s main food crops such as bananas and cassava, are under attack by pests and diseases and they are fast dying out, further threatening food security. Statistically, Uganda is Africa’s leading banana producer and stands only next to India internationally.

However, over the years, because of Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW), Uganda’s annual $550m production of bananas has reduced to $350m, according to Jerome Kubiriba, head of the Banana Research Project. Bananas are the main food crop in central and much of western Uganda. BBW, a pest-caused disease, has proven incurable so far and the crop’s destruction continues to spread.

Cassava, which is a staple food in Eastern and northern Uganda, is also under attack by the cassava mosaic disease and the cassava brown streak disease. The two diseases have reduced yields to less than half the potential according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. Maize production is declining due to increasing incidences of drought which have caused as much as 70% crop loss or more in some cases – like in Karamoja.

The country’s main cash crop, Robusta coffee, has been attacked by the coffee wilt disease that has reduced the crop stock by 55% according to Joseph Nkandu, Executive Director of the National Union for Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises. Only a few years ago the country saw the arrival of the coffee twig borer which, according to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, caused a reduction of 3.7% in the country’s total coffee exports and a loss of $18.1m in 2011. The loss is a lot bigger in 2014 because of the increased severity of twig borer infestation, at between 6% and 12% across the country.

The country has other food-related issues such as malnutrition. Thousands of its people suffer from what Harvest-Plus – an anti-hunger global organisation – has described as “hidden hunger”. It is a form of malnutrition caused by the lack of micronutrients in the food eaten by most poor people.

Many poor people eat staple foods such as potatoes, bananas, or cassava that quickly fill their stomachs, yet they continue to suffer from malnutrition or hidden hunger, as these food crops do not have the vital nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A that the World Health Organisation categorises as the most essential nutrients to healthy living. 

Without sufficient micronutrients in their diet, children’s growth slows down, their brains don’t develop properly, they may become blind, and generally they risk failure in developing strong immune systems. Everyone needs to eat a well-balanced diet, comprising a variety of food items such as fruits, vegetables, fish and animal products, to live healthy, productive lives but this has proven difficult to achieve, especially amongst the poor of Uganda. 

The country has now embarked on providing bio-fortified sweet potato vines and beans for the local small farmers to grow, so as to reduce malnutrition among pregnant women and children.

Using bio-technology scientists across the world have succeeded in fusing iron, zinc and vitamin A into domestic food crops that have been eaten for generations.

Bio-fortified sweet potatoes and beans have been easily accepted by the poor since they taste like the sweet potatoes and beans that have been their main diet for generations. Uganda has often been described as having “lush green forests, abundant rainfall and a surfeit of other sources of water” but, unknown to most people, despite its unique agro-climatic conditions the country is very prone to crop and animal diseases and its agriculture is facing devastating challenges. Crops are being wiped out by disease.

Sensitive to the challenges, Uganda has for close to 15 years been investing in biotechnological research and development, including genetic engineering (or GM technology), in an effort to overcome the diseases that appear set to attack its major food and cash crops.

Uganda has trained scientists and built modern biotechnology laboratories, besides providing funding for development of improved food crop varieties such as disease-resistant cassava and banana as well as drought- resistant maize. Uganda without bananas, maize, cassava, or coffee is unimaginable, but without GM research on these crops, that is the likelihood.

At Kawanda Research Station (near Kampala) genetic modification research is going on to develop bananas resistant to the devastating banana bacterial wilt and to produce bananas rich in vitamin A to curb malnutrition. Cotton is undergoing GM research at Serere (Eastern Uganda) and Kasese (Western Uganda) to achieve Bollworm resistance and herbicide resistance.

The overall aims are to enhance cotton yields and the quality of lint, by limiting pest damage to cotton bolls, and to improve weed management. Maize is undergoing GM research for drought tolerance and adaptation to meet the hazards of global warming.

Cassava is undergoing GM research at Namulonge (near Kampala) to come up with varieties resistant to cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease.

All these efforts are being made in Uganda to save Uganda’s food crops, and are being carried out by Ugandans themselves. Some initial success has been encouraging, but a lot of work is still to be done. The country already has a National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Policy (2008) and has also put in place a team of scientists and other stakeholders, the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC), whose mandate is to support and uphold the safe and responsible use of biotechnology for national development.

The government has also opened up a debate on the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, which is still ongoing. As a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol, Uganda is seeking to legalise and formalise its use of biotechnology products and wants a law in place before improved versions from biotechnology can be passed on to the farmers for planting.

In recent years, the Uganda Coffee Research Institute at Kituuza in Mukono District identified some nine high- yielding Robusta coffee varieties that are resistant to the devastating coffee wilt disease and so far, some two million plantlets of the varieties have been produced by tissue culture technology at AGT Laboratories near Buloba, along the Kampala-Mityana Road.

Due to lack of correct information however, there are some people who think that it is unsafe to eat GM foods, and that GMOs are a time- bomb for Africa and Uganda in particular. The truth is that strict laws govern biotechnology products and they undergo a lot of assessment stipulated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as the UBBC, here in Uganda.

No government worth its salt would invest money in research projects whose products would kill or maim its people. Africa must begin to trust science and to support scientific research for the benefit of its own people. Many refer to GMOs as man-made and prefer to eat “natural food” in order to be safe. But these same people travel in cars, trains and airplanes which are man-made and they feel safe. The natural way to travel from Uganda to Cape Town would be to walk, but who still does that?

Others think that GMOs are special crop seeds imported into the country to discourage our farmers from growing the traditional crops. The aim is totally different because the country is interested in ensuring food security for its people and enhancing agricultural productivity. Farming will be a lot cheaper when the farmers are not required to irrigate their maize or weed their crops. The people will be a lot healthier when they eat food enhanced with vital nutrients without having to struggle getting all the fruit and the other natural sources of the nutrients.

As a cotton growing country, Ugandans should heed the words of a senior minister that “GM cotton provides farmers with in-built protection against pests which can otherwise halve yields. So the farmer benefits through insurance against losses and reduced input costs.

“There are environmental benefits through reduced insecticide use. The impacts of this are profound, particularly in developing countries where cotton tends to be grown. India went from being a net importer of cotton to a major exporter. It is estimated that there has been a 216-fold increase in GM cotton uptake in India from 2002 to 2012. This translates to an enhanced farm income from GM cotton of some $12.6 billion for Indian farmers, coupled with a 24% increase in yield per acre and a 50% gain in cotton profit among smallholders.

“Simultaneously, the quantity of insecticides used to control cotton bollworm reduced by 96% from over 5,700 metric tons to as low as 222 metric tons of active ingredient in 2011.”

Michael J Ssali is a coffee and banana farmer in Lwengo District, Southern Uganda. He is also a journalist, writing a weekly column in the Daily Monitor titled: “Farmers Diary.”

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