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Food politics

By Ronald Musoke

As Ugandan biotechnologists push to have their products onto a farm near you, should you curse or celebrate?

Usually, the leaves of the apple banana or, as it is commonly called here, the ‘sweet banana’ are apple green. But the one Dr Privah Nakamya likes to show off at the National Agriculture Research Laboratories at Kawanda has yellowish leaves. The leaves also point upwards instead of spreading out sideways to form the familiar canopy.

“This one has high Vitamin A nutrients,” she says proudly; then adds: “But we wouldn’t give it to local farmers because it wouldn’t be easily accepted.”

Dr Nakamya, one of the top banana researchers in the country, is right. Her creation looks quite unusual in an unattractive way. Possibly, it is because it is a work in progress.

In any case, whether or not her enriched-banana eventually gets to the farmers depends largely on the `Bio-technology and Bio-safety Bill’ under consideration by parliament. The Bill has polarised the public, civil society, the science community, and politicians.

Members of the Science and Technology Committee of parliament, who are caught up in the storm, were visiting the national agriculture research facility, when we met Dr Nakamya. The politicians were at Kawanda to observe firsthand the intricacies of biotechnology; the controlled and deliberate manipulation of biological organisms to create, hopefully, better plant products.

The modified banana plant Dr Nakamya showed us was one of several on a plot of about two acres of well-kept garden.Moments earlier another scientist, Dr Andrew Kiggundu, had just shown our group the laboratories where the genetic manipulation takes place.

Nakamya says the researchers decided to prioritise enriching bananas after research by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics showed that Uganda’s banana eating population, especially children below five years, are stunted while others are anaemic.

For this particular trial, the apple banana is injected with some genes from carrots—a root vegetable that is naturally endowed with carotene, the orange-coloured ingredient that turns into Vitamin A when consumed by humans. The resultant banana looks different because of the orange-coloured ingredient from the carrot.The banana research is just one of many trials on various crops being done at this vast 100-year-old agricultural research centre.

The scientists are manipulating genes to ensure that bananas can resist bacterial wilt, weevils and other pests and diseases that are currently contributing to losses to Ugandan banana growers every year. The scientists calculate that the loss could be as high as Shs500 billion worth of bananas every year.

The survival of the banana is critical because Uganda has the highest consumption of bananas in the world. It is calculated that Ugandans eat over 30 million kilograms of banana daily; an average of 0.7kg per person per day.

If research on the banana is not done properly and pests and disease are allowed to thrive, the fruit that we take for granted could be wiped out. It has happened before in South America. In the 1950s, the so-called Panama disease wiped out the bananas there and a new variety had to be introduced at high cost.

In the past decade alone, the researchers say, bacterial wilt disease has cut banana yields by 30 to 50% in banana growing regions of western, central and eastern Uganda.

Another Ugandan staple, cassava, famed for bailing out Ugandan families in times of food scarcity is equally threatened. Annual cassava losses to pests and disease are valued at Shs200 billion. That is enough money to pay all 23,000 diploma holding secondary school teachers in Uganda salaries of Shs350, 000 per month for two years.

The frequency with which farms are being attacked by pests, weeds and crop and animal diseases resulting into poor crop and animal yields every season is worrying, scientists say. This has further been exacerbated by the rapid change in weather and climatic patterns.

Major biotech Research & Development activities

Commodity Areas under research
Banana Pro-vitamin A; bacterial wilt resistance
Maize Drought tolerance; disease/pest resistance
Cassava Brown streak disease resistance, mosaic resistance
Cotton Herbicide tolerance, bollworm resistance
Rice Nutrient use efficiency
Livestock Vaccine production; disease diagnostics breeding
Fisheries Breeding; disease diagnostics

Activists and pessimists

Dr. Peter Ndemere, the executive secretary of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) says scientists must find solutions to new problems and biotechnological innovations, including genetically engineered or modified crops (GMOs), are one option. He and other scientists know, however, that convincing some influential Ugandans about this is as tough as swallowing a hot banana.

“GMOs are not the answer to our food security; the answer to food security is our own [indigenous] crops,” says Prof. Oweyegha Afunaduula, a former lecturer in the zoology and botany department at Makerere University.

Afunaduula told a forum organised by the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) on June 23 that “time is coming when food will be used to dominate countries, especially in Africa since the continent is intellectually dependent.”

He added: “Food can be a weapon to abuse human rights.”

Giregon Olupot, a soil scientist at Makerere University’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences also says GMOs are “enslaving”.

When prominent scientists like Afunaduula and Olupot speak, Ugandan farmers listen.A big proportion of the 80% of Ugandans who are dependent on agriculture farm organically; without pesticides and fertilizers, and the fear of getting hooked on foreign produced, costly GM seeds and pesticides is massive. They prefer to continue planting seed saved from the previous season’s harvest instead of switching to buying new seed each season.

But biotech supporters too are pushing their agenda. In April, they invited Prof. Calestous Juma, a celebrated academic and internationally recognized authority on the role of innovation in economic development to give a lecture on “Rebooting African Economies: science and engineering for rapid economic transformation”.

“Genetic engineering is nothing but a tool for solving problems,” Prof. Juma told his audience, “Nobody has found a better solution than the scientists are advancing.”

Juma, a professor of international development and director of the science, technology, and globalization project at Harvard Kennedy School, in the US says, if the Ugandans’ unrelenting crave for bananas continues then genetic engineering is the way to go.

Nakamya and 200 other biotechnologists in Uganda’s agricultural research organisations who have over the last 15 years been engaged in crop and animal improvement, say it is time for the results of their findings to benefit the wider population.

Dr. Maxwell Otim Onapa who is based at UNCST says similar research is going on in the animal field. He says the first biotechnology study of its kind was done by Makerere University’s animal science department on how bovine somatotropin (BST); a growth hormone found in cow milk could improve milk production.

If a law is ready, release of the improved bananas could come as early as 2016, according to Dr. Kiggundu. But first, the law on Biotechnology and Biosafety must be passed.  At a biotechnology symposium held on June 26 at Kawanda, scientists showed frustration and wondered why the bill currently before the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology has met opposition.

Prof. Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, the Director of research at Kawanda said the debate has been “taken over by people with little information on the subject” and urged the Ugandan biotechnology fraternity to “fight fire with fire”.

Victoria Sekitoleko, a former agriculture minister and high-ranking technocrat at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), had a message for the urban middle class who oppose GMOs because they have never experienced the pangs of hunger; “You are already eating GMOs, especially those who buy food stuffs from big supermarkets in Kampala.”

Ndemere agrees. He says most Ugandans have consumed GM food at one point; in the vegetable oil imported from countries like USA manufactured using genetically modified crops such as soy beans.

“We didn’t do science to kill people; we did it to save lives,” Ndemere explains.

“Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones,” he says, “rather it ended because new ways of doing things better emerged.”

Another scientist, Dr. Theresa Sengooba, says there is already a lot going on around the world in the biotechnology sphere and Uganda cannot continue disassociating herself from the GM revolution.

“Even if Ugandans do not want GM products,” she says, “let the law on biotechnology be passed to regulate or apprehend whoever brings them within the country’s borders.”

According to the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA), more than 15 million farmers around the world have planted GM crops on almost 370 million acres boosting yields by 10-25%. Many are in the developing world but Sudan, Uganda’s northern neighbour is one of them, while South Africa, one of Uganda’s major trading partners too grows GM crops.

Museveni frustrated

But would there be benefits of adopting GM crops?

In Uganda and Africa in general, studies are scanty but a recent report released by the UK-based PG Economics shows that, over a 16-year period (1996-2011), the global farm income gain rose toUS$98.2 billion. It says, 49% (US$48 billion) accrued because of yield gains of especially maize and cotton due to lower pest and weed pressure and improved genetics.

Over 110 million tons of soybeans and 195 million tons of maize were added. Without crop biotechnology, maintaining global production at the 2011 levels would have required an additional 13.344 million acres of soybeans, 16.309 million acres of corn, and 8.155 million acres of cotton.

The same report also noted that crop biotechnology has contributed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by reducing fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage. It has also reduced pesticide spraying by 474 million kilogrammes.

However, only four African countries—Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan have okayed the growing of genetically engineered crops, while four more, including Uganda are currently conducting confined field trials for banana, maize, cotton, potatoes and rice at Namulonge and Kawanda research institutes.

Prof. Juma says that Africa is the place that most needs a boost from biotechnology.

He says many sub-Saharan African farmers cannot afford to buy pesticides, so corn and cotton that are genetically insect-resistant could make a big difference. Juma says Africa should not succumb to food politics which is riddled with paradoxes.

“There is a clear disconnect between comfort with familiar agricultural practices and the food challenges that lie ahead.”

He is convinced that if African countries adopt biotechnology it will do for the continent’s agricultural sector what mobile phone technology has done for the communications sector.   However,he says, to realize this potential, African countries need to adopt a flexible and supportive regulatory framework in addition to devising strategies that put science, technology and innovation at the centre of economic transformation.

“If Africa had restrictive mobile technology regulations imposed at the outset, it would not have benefitted from the technology and even pioneered in fields such as mobile money transfer.”

Isaac Ongu, an agriculturalist and consultant in agricultural information dissemination wants Ugandans to debate the GMO issue based on information. In debating GMOs, he says, Ugandans should try to answer the following question: Will the promotion of GMOs solve Uganda’s future food security challenges?

According to Ongu, food security revolves around availability, affordability and accessibility while the country’s food security challenges are complex and need multi-sectoral approaches to prevent problems like drought, pests and diseases, floods and poor farming methods.

President Yoweri Museveni is frustrated that 20 million disease-free banana tissues are currently at Kawanda and cannot be released to farmers because of the absence of a law, according to Matia Kasaija, the junior minister of Finance. “The president wants to see the banana wilt-resistant tissues used very soon,” Kasaija told scientists at Kawanda recently, “There will be no surrendering to anti-biotechnology activists.

“There is no way Uganda can move forward without advancement in technology.”

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