News brief: Ugandan farmers say no to GMOs (AllAfrica, with additional information from AATF)

| April 8, 2013

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Eland Muyambi is a potato farmer from Kabale, in southwest Uganda. Here is Mr. Myuambi’s opinion on the National Biotechnology and Bio Safety Bill 2013, which is currently being read by Uganda’s national parliament: “The country will be invaded with GMO products if this Bill is passed.”

Genetically modified organisms or GMOs are plants or animals which have been produced using laboratory-based genetic engineering, rather than through cross-breeding via pollination. Some GMOs are produced by introducing genetic material from the same species. This speeds the process of getting a variety on the market. Other GMOs, known as transgenics, receive genes from unrelated species: for example, genes from a common bacterium were introduced into maize to protect the crop against insect damage. Desirable qualities, like the ability to resist heat, drought, pests and diseases, can be introduced to plants and animals in a short period of time, as opposed to the years that traditional breeding requires.

Mr. Muyambi believes that GMOs will have negative effects on both humans and the environment. Like many small-scale farmers, he does not want Ugandan lawmakers to pass the Bill into law. The farmers argue that the law will promote a massive inflow of GMOs to the country, which will damage the farming economy.

Many farmers believe that the introduction of GMOs cannot solve food security issues. In fact, they think it will worsen the problem. Those in favour of the Bill believe that it will guarantee that GMOs are grown safely and with little impact on the environment. But many farmers think these proponents are being selective with the truth about GMOs in an effort to convince the public of their safety and introduce them.

Mr. Muyambi warns: “The government and parliament should think twice when passing this bill. The cost of food will go very high, out of reach of the common people.” He believes that the expense of GMOs will impact heavily on small-scale farmers. Many GMO crops require expensive fertilizers and pesticides.

But other Ugandans think that introducing some GMOs will be beneficial. Dr. Andrew Kiggundu is the acting director of NARO, the National Agricultural Research Organization. He has spent seven years working on a GM banana with six times the normal level of vitamin A, in a bid to help solve the country’s nutritional problems.

GM bananas could be widely available in Uganda in five years’ time, if the Bill is passed into law. Matooke, made from bananas, is a major staple and source of carbohydrates in Uganda. Ugandans eat up to a kilogram of matooke every day.

Dr. Kiggundu says: “There will be considerable debate both pro and against the technology, but we are very optimistic that the law will be eventually passed.”

NARO has been lobbying at the top levels of government. The organization believes that the government will probably support their projects and that genetically modified bananas will be released to farmers.

Dr. Giregon Olupot is a Senior Lecturer at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science at Makerere University, Kampala. He warns that farmers risk falling foul of the law. Because GMOs are new life forms, biotechnology companies have obtained patents which restrict their use. Dr. Olupot warns that companies which produce GMOs will have the power to sue farmers whose crops contain genes from GMOs. Traditional, non-GMO crops can become contaminated by genes from GMO crops through cross-pollination from neighbouring fields.

Dr. Olupot says: “GMOs therefore pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty and to the national food security of any country like Uganda.”