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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.

Global response

The US State of California recently voted 53% recommending that GMO foods there must be clearly labelled so as to differentiate them from organic foods.

Ireland has rejected GMOs outright. Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria adopted GMOs but later dropped them. Kenya and Switzerland have destroyed GMOs crops by burning them. Many other countries around the world do not permit GMOs.

Tanzania's parliament rejected GMOs so that ordinary farmers are protected. GMO cotton was proved in Tanzania to be poisonous to cloven-hoofed animals, especially cattle. Ocen argues that the modernisation of agriculture has nothing to do with GMOs. Instead, he says, the government should give local farmers subsidies and provide agricultural extension workers to teach them how to get improved and quality yields. He fears that "chemicals and acaricides used in GMOs will affect the health of Ugandans".

It is widely believed that suppliers of agricultural inputs and implements are sponsoring Uganda's GMO bill and championing the cause of GMOs in the country The bill's advocates claim it will provide mechanisms to regulate research, development, and the release of GMOs in Uganda.

In May last year, the junior planning minister, Matia Kasaija, told MPs on the Committee of National Economy that the enactment of the bill "is an obligation, not a choice".

Yet the national coordinator of the Food Rights Alliance, Agnes Kirabo (pictured, below right) while petitioning the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) last year to use its political and diplomatic powers to shape the GMO bill before Uganda's parliament, told the state-owned New Vision newspaper that "GMOs will become a real security threat because our farmers will become dependent on multinational seed companies as traditional healthy foods vanish".

She doubted the need for GMOs in a country with adequate arable land and excess water sources. Uganda has over 40 million acres of arable land.

In June 2013, a soil scientist, Dr Giregon Olupot, who teaches at the Makerere University's College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, was arrested for "launching a sustained campaign" against the bill.

Dr Olupot claimed that the bill was designed to facilitate the killing of nature, indigenous crops, and biodiversity in Uganda. He called the molecular biologists, stakeholders, and MPs in support of the bill "bioterrorists", and described the National Agricultural Research Organisation as a conduit for international dirty money.

Dr Olupot's bold and daring remarks helped reveal a secret wrangling between scientists and activists on one hand and the government on the other hand over the bill.

In its current form, the bill is aligned to the interests of multinational companies and not the interests of Ugandan farmers and the wider public.

The promotion of the bill has largely been suspicious as its proponents have chosen to talk only about the positive impacts of GMOs and neglected to truthfully tell the public of the negative implications. This is a violation of "the precautionary principle" of the African Union's revised African Model Law on Biodiversity. It is also a violation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of which Uganda is signatory No. 157.

Principle 15 of this international agreement on biosafety (which is also known as the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development), obliges signatory states to ensure an adequate level of protection, safe transfer, and handling of the use of living organisms resulting from modern biotechnology in order to minimise the risks to human health.

The Biosafety Protocol advocates that new technologies should be based on "the precautionary principle", which allows developing countries like Uganda to have an equilibrium between public health and economic benefits. Therefore, the Protocol permits countries to ban GMOs.

Opponents of Uganda's GMO bill point to how some local farmers were convinced to grow GMO oranges and mangoes that turned out to be tasteless.

As one protestor shouted at an anti-GMO demonstration in Kampala:

"There were seeds before our generation, thus it shouldn't be our generation's duty to kill that culture. Our mangoes grow naturally?"

So far, the GMO bill has become increasingly unpopular, and the war against GMOs has turned out to be a war by the common people for the common people.
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Title Annotation:Uganda; genetically modified organisms
Author:Oniro, Tom
Publication:New African
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:May 1, 2014
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