Unknown to most Ugandans, NARO currently runs one of the most active GMO research facilities on the African continent
Kampala, Uganda| ANDREW S. KAGGWA | Barbara Ntambirweki, a research fellow with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) is preparing for a bit fight – against introduction into the country of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
She laughs off suggestions by GMO proponents that the recent attack by the army worm has softened the resolve to oppose the introduction of a pro-GMO law in Uganda.
“If they think they will have it easy when they introduce the Bill again they are joking. We are even more organised than before,” Ntambirweki says as she sifts through her battery of petitions and other documents she has been writing to parliament on the issue.
She is referring to the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 which was in 2013 presented to Parliament amidst opposition mainly from Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga sent the Bill to the Parliamentary committee on Science and Technology for scrutiny but, in March, President Yoweri Museveni told Parliament to quickly pass the Bill ‘to help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture sector is facing.”
It was the first time the President, who was at his demonstration farm at Kawumu State Lodge in Luweero District, was giving his opinion on the controversial issue, and appears to be the official line now.
But Ntambirweki and her camp say the Bill is bad because it seeks to smuggle GMOs into the country without safeguards and that the government and its agencies are using the threat of hunger to convince the country that GMOs are the magic bullet for solving all the country’s agricultural challenges – which, according to her, is a lie.
The anti-GMO lobby cites the example of Africa’s top cotton producing country; Burkina Faso, where GMO cotton was introduced but later abandoned after Monsanto supplied cotton damaged the quality. The fiber length, one of the chief measures of quality, was reduced, causing Burkina Faso’s cotton to fetch lower prices on the world market.
Ntambirweki’s opponents, the proponents of GMOs, however, appear equally determined to ride on the recent attack on the maize crop by the fall army worm to introduce GMO maize. According to this group, GMO maize will not be susceptible to attack from the fall army worm or any other pests and diseases.
Leading the pro-GMO army of scientists is Dr. Ambrose Agona, the director general of the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO).
Money, politics behind the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012
Unknown to most Ugandans, NARO currently runs one of the most active GMO research facilities on the African continent. According to the South African based African Center for Biodiversity (ACB), Uganda has the largest number of GMO crops under testing by NARO. These include maize, bananas, cassava, potato, rice and sweet potatoes. And Dr. Agona admits doing the research even if the activity is illegal under current laws.
At the peak of the fall army worm invasion in March, Agona told journalists that NARO has developed several GMO crop varieties that can withstand drought, pests and diseases but the law does not allow NARO to release them.
“If the biotechnology law was in place we would be able to release this maize variety which is resistant to the armyworm,” he said.
The coordinator at National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCCRI), Barbara Zawedde backs Agona’s position. She says farmers continue to suffer economic losses yet researchers are developing varieties resistant to drought, pest and diseases and shelving them because there is no law. NaCCRI is one of NARO’s research institutes located at Namulonge. She says the scientists have developed solutions to banana bacterial wilt, viruses in cassava, and drought resistant maize and rice.
“Bacterial wilt is causing Uganda an annual loss of over Shs600 million,” Zawedde says.
The Executive Secretary of the Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFF), Augustine Mwendya, also says he backs the passing of the Bill. UNFF is an umbrella body for all farmers’ associations in the country.
Even politicians like Kabweri County Member of Parliament, Francis Gonahasa, say people like Ntambirweki who are fighting GMOs are simply ignorant. Gonahasa who has a university degree in agriculture says even though he belongs to the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, he is with the government when it comes to GMOs helping increase food security and productivity.
“Some of those opposing the Bill don’t know that the broiler chickens they buy from the markets are a product of GMOs,” Gonahasa said. Even some of the imported food products on shop shelves contain GMO ingredients and are ironically consumed by the same opponents of GMOs.
Revelations by Zawede, Agona, and Gonahasa appear to have pierced a painful spot among the anti-GMO camp. ACB estimates that 80 percent of food in Africa is produced by small-scale farmers who cannot afford the expensive GMO seeds.
“Genetic technology is extremely expensive. A farmer needs at least 500 hectares (1200 acres) before it pays its way. Most small scale farmers own much smaller plots of land,” ACB says.
According to ACB, in South Africa, farmers have to pay twice, sometimes five times as much for genetically modified maize than for the conventional variety. They cannot even extract seeds for replanting from their own crop and have to buy a new batch every year.
An official of a group against introduction of GMOs in Nigeria ‘Friends of the Earth Nigeria’ said African governments had learnt nothing from the Burkina Faso fiasco.
Now Ntambirweki is accusing Ugandan scientists of being in the pay of American GMO merchants.