Africa And Biotechnology: A Reign Of Deception, Ignorance And Mistrust In Uganda

By Joseph  Burite

Normally, farmers across Uganda are busy tending their gardens so as to maximize on rains during  eason of the year. But on a chilly afternoon of Thursday 3rd October 2013, hundreds of them gather at Kasana Sharing Hall in the Central-Uganda District of Luweero -approximately 60 kilometers from the Capital, Kampala.


On stage is Ellady Muyambi who runs a local non-profit organisation, Uganda Network on Toxic Free Malaria Control (UNETMAC) which he says works to promote a Malaria-free World and a Toxic-free future.

In less than ten minutes, Ellady makes a power-point presentation on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), showing his audience pictures of deformed Laboratory Rats, Maize cobs bearing Human heads and Cattludder as huge as the cattle itself – all of which he says are results of GMOs. You can hear the audience gasp in disgust.

This is Ellady’s version of truth, which he and a group of other local NGOs have been presenting at events across Uganda, the so-called “farmers-dialogues on GMOs.”

Also lined up to present is Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, the Director of Biosciences at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO).
In what has become standard practice, proponents of GMOs like Dr. Kiggundu take the stage only ater opponents like Ellady. Kiggundu is visibly perplexed. For a PHD holder, he mumbles a few words explaining the concept of Genetic Modification in about five minutes to this audience of rural farmers after which he entertains questions.

One lady asks why GMOs were given to them without their knowledge. She cites a “white man”  who toured her farm project and when he was offered food, he turned it down saying it was GMO. Kiggundu struggles to explain to her that no GMO is under cultivation in Uganda and therefore the “white visitor’s” claim was misleading.

Another farmer, Ali Ddumba stands to ask why the West is sending such scary technology to Uganda. “They should keep it for themselves,” he says, to which Kiggundu clarifies that although GMO research was first adopted in Western countries, the one in Uganda is being developed by local Scientists.

This particular dialogue is organized by Caritas International, whose project coordinator Betty Aguti says Man has no business tampering with nature. “We should not attempt to modify God’s creations,” she
says, emphasizing the religious position of the Catholic Church, which runs Caritas International.

After a few minutes of exhanges, Betty then asks the audience if they have a message regarding GMOs for their Members of Parliament. Virtually everyone raises their hand.

Clement Bagatozayo is the first to speak and says he wants the area Member of Parliament to “come to the ground and consult the farmers before passing a law on GMOs.” Speaker after speaker, they all join Bagatuzayo in agitating for the same. At this point, Betty hands out prepared forms for all to write their names.

She then pledges to deliver their petition. On the sidelines, I ask Bagatuzayo whether, following the presentation, he fully understands the concept of GMOs.

He responds affirmatively but fails to explain it even in his mother tongue. He insists though that it is dangerous. I ask him if he has confidence in Ugandan scientists, to which he says yes.

Robinah Namutebi, also attending admits she still has no idea what GMOs are about but says she is against the West dumping technology “rejected” in their
countries into Uganda.

Another farmer, Patrick Kamulegeya approaches me boasting that he understands GMOs well. He says he has no problem growing them because he is already doing it and its working well for him. “I have been harvesting good Tomatoes,” Kamulegeya says, evidently showing he couldn’t differentiate between GMOs and hybrid varieties which NARO has been availing farmers.

Yet these farmers are no different from Jean Kiconco, a Makerere University graduate who also  xpresses total ignorance about the subject.

Neither is Calvin Olupot, an accountant with a local NGO who says he keeps wondering what GMOs are but has never saved time to ask. The same goes for Chandi Abdi, a Journalism graduate who runs a private communications firm in Kampala.

“I hear people talking about GMOs like their life depended on it but I just don’t understand,” says Abdi. Yet all the above reside in areas that are less than an hour’s drive to centrally located National Agricultural Research Stations.

This level of ignorance worries Prof. Zerubabel Nyiira Mijumbi, Uganda’s State Minister for Agriculture. He is particularly concerned about the anti-GM activists’ sustained commentary on the subject he
says they remotely understand.

“Many people have got themselves entangled in discussing issues of Biotechnology without understanding the issues of Bio-safety” he notes, adding there is confusion as they think Biotechnology is GMOs and vice verse.

Zerubabel, himself a celebrated Scientist who previously headed the apex Science body in the country, the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST) says there is no doubt that Agriculture is basically about Genetic Engineering and the key to appreciating this fact lies in understanding that Cell Biology and Engineering is as old as humanity itself.

He cites the 1880s pioneering work of Gregor Johan Mendel as a classic case of genetic engineering.

“That was all genetic engineering,” he says, pointing out that what modern engineering has done is take what was being done by selection in the field and accelerated it in the Laboratory for faster and precise breeding.
“Therefore not all genetically-engineered material is bad. It is the way we utilize what has been engineered that matters,” he declares and then names the use of stem cells to repair human bodies and the wide use of GM in Pharmaceuticals and Nutrition as some of the examples of positive use.

He cautions that when approaching the question of GMOs, bio-safety must be emphasized because it is meant to ensure that it is applied safely.

Dr. Charles Mwesigye Changa, the Director of Plant Virology at the National Agricultural Research Laboratory – Kawanda agrees. He likes to explain GMOs using the analogy of the Alphabet. “It has just 27 letters, but look how many names exist on earth,” he says. “Its just a matter of combining letters to arrive at your desired name,” Changa says.

“That is how Biotechnology and GMOs work,” he relates, saying scientists identify desirable characteristics and introduce them into other organisms in order to achieve certain vital elements.

Figure 1: Three-step Illustration of Genetic Modification  But critics fiercely contend that GMOs pose serious threats to the lives of Ugandans if introduced. “Food is the most important element of life.

You can go for a month without medicine but you will die in few days without food,” says Richard Mugisha of ParticipatorEcological Land Use Management (PELUM), a coalition of non-profit
organisations dealing in Agriculture.

He says GMOs are meant to feed animals not humans. “We should be making a law to ban them as opposed to allowing their introduction,” says Richard, his reasons being that GMOs will eliminate indigenous crop varieties, contaminate Uganda’s environment and farmers will be
enslaved as they won’t save seed for re-planting.

“They are aimed at undermining our food sovereignty,” says Bridget Mugambe of the Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) another non-profit.

She notes that Uganda is known to produce many varieties hence GMO research on all Uganda’s staple food means “they are trying to take control of our food.”

She says research on Bananas in particular will stifle Ugandan culture since traditional varieties are imperative when conducting ceremonies among many Ugandan tribes. “Certain traits in GMOs remain dormant and re-activate later hence the plants are unpredictable and dangerous,” she adds.

Ivan Mugabi of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) says Ugandan farmers have been tackling the challenges of disease successfully by using traditional methods like burning. “We have been coping well with traditional techniques,” says Mugabi.

Caritas International’s Betty Aguti suggests that Uganda does not have sufficient capacity to handle challenges related to Biotechnology and GMOs.

She may be right. Officials say Uganda has been developing both technical and Human Resource capacity for the last ten years. They
point to four Genomics labs in place, Ten Microbiology labs and Seven Tissue Culture facilities.

They also cite sharing of scientific facilities hosted by other African countries under the AU’s NEPAD. On human resource, Dr. Andrew Kiggundu says NARO boasts of over 2000 Agricultural Researchers, 140 of which are experts in Biotechnology and GM.

MP Hamson Obua, who chairs the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament says Uganda has some of the best Scientists in Africa, only second to those of South Africa.

But our investigation reveals that while the Government of Uganda highlights artificial breeding of Bagrus docmak Fish (locally known as Semutundu) as one of the country’s premier GM research breakthroughs at Kajjansi Aquaculture Research and Development Centre (KARDC), the project is actually an individual research activity for Rose Komugisha Basiita, as part of her PHD she is currently pursuing at Australia’s James Cook University.

It obviously raises eyebrows when a government claims a student’s research project as its own, even if the student in question is a government staffer.

It also emerges that she is the only artificial breeder (GM) and Hatchery specialist at KARDC. Meanwhile, a number of junior researchers who applied for facilitation to study the same two years ago are yet to receive any.

However, officials argue that the first step in developing capacity is establishing an enabling la, hence the tabling of the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012.

But the bill which seeks to establish institutions to regulate the introduction and safe use of Biotechnology and GMOs is marred in controversy.

Elements most controversial include its seemingly over-reaching emphasis on the confidentiality of business secrets while its proposals on punishment for violators are viewed as lenient.

It also proposes UNCST as a competent authority to oversee GM activities in the country, something many say creates a conflict of interest since UNCST’s constitutional mandate is the promotion of science.

The bill also falls short in holding officials accountable as it eliminates personal liability for employees of the competent authority who will be approving and inspecting GM activities. Critics also say that a 30-day window for evaluation of research projects is a short time considering GMOs contain complex materials.

Most crucial is that the Bill ignores labeling of GM products – a matter that has caused uproar among anti-GM activists.

Currently under review by the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament, the bill is already on record as the most consulted bill in the countries legislative history, with over 400 stakeholders contacted for input.

Herbert Oloka, the Uganda Country Coordinator for Biosafety Activity at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says the long-drawn consultations reflect the bill’s significance.

Yet a legal vacuum persists. For a bill that traces its formulation as far back as 1993 when Uganda signed and ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and is yet to pass nearly 20 years on, experts warn that such long delays in legislation create legal vacuums which can be exploited by unscrupulous players.

“Technically, its not illegal to grow GMOs in Uganda right now,” says Herbert Oloka, noting that even government agencies are rendered toothless as they have no mandates.

MP Hamson Obua says officials at Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) have informed him that relief food subjected to tests in transit from Mombasa Port is largely GMO-derived food.

And still, the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 is just one of the many laws needed to efficiently regulate Biotechnology in Uganda. Amendments are still pending on the National Drug Policy and Authority Act 1993 to regulate GM-derived medicine. The Plant Variety Protection Bill which seeks to regulate plant breeding has also been pending for years.

In contrast though, legislation on at the regional level seems to be moving way faster. Example, the Common Markets for East and Southern Africa – COMESA’s Seed Trade Harmonisation Act awaits adoption at the summit level after which member states including Uganda will be required to ratify it.

Anti GM activists have also been critical of the latter saying that it seeks to open up local markets for multi-nationals which have resources enough to recover profit from operating across the region.
“Greedy corporations may also exploit this law to bring its GM seeds into Uganda,” suggests Bridget Mugambe.

Though, NARO and other stakeholders are pulling all stops to address major concerns.

To address possible risk of Gene Pollution where GM pollen could land on traditional varieties, NARO has been evaluating all crops to avoid the same. Gene flow is reduced to less than 0.5% at 900 feet and less than 0.2% at distances greater than 1500 feet, meaning a circumference of about 9420 ft significantly diminishes chances of gene pollution.

Concerns however remain as to whether the distance is feasible in Uganda where congested subsistence farms are dominant.

On the likely emergence of Super Weeds which are resistant to pesticides, Changa says Genes are studied to ensure that chances of resistance are eliminated by applying a sequence that deters certain characteristics. Plant families are also studied example Maize, whose relative Tripsacum does not grow anywhere in Africa.

On the suspected link between Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt in short form – a Gram-positive, soil dwelling bacterium used as biological pesticide) and the reduction in bee populations.

NARO is conducting its own studies at the existing confined testing fields to evaluate But impact on the ecosystem. For this reason, Changa rules out any release But Cotton with-in the next ten years, even if GMOs were to be approved today. This will be to allow completion of thorough studies.

And on preserving traditional plant varieties, three gene banks have been established to maintain genes which can be retrieved when required. One of the gene banks is located at the Government Phytosanitary Unit in Namalele, another at Makerere University’s Faculty of Agriculture and another at the Kawanda National Agricultural Laboratories.

As it stands, NARO’s GMO research has seen Uganda emerging as the country to have tested the most GM varieties in Africa. Namely: Drought-tolerant Maize, Insect-resistant Maize, Bacterial Wilt-resistant Bananas, Nematode-resistant Bananas, Vitamin A-enhanced Bananas, Brown Strip-resistant Cassava, Cassava Mosaic-resistant Cassava, Virus-resistant Rice and Nitrogen-efficient Rice.

Yet even with such noteworthy efforts, NARO’s own past mistakes have returned to haunt the organization at a time when it needs all the public confidence it can gather.

Roughly a decade ago, Banana Bacterial Wilt was wrecking havoc across the country in the wake of country-wide drought. Faced with a disturbing prospect of a starving nation, NARO released FHIA 17 and 25 Banana varieties.

Developed  through international collaboration in Honduras, they are resistant to disease, are more tolerant to dry conditions and produce bigger bunches of between 60 – 80 kilos compared to traditional ones which on average weighed 20 – 50 kilos.
“For NARO, it was a strategic move to encourage farmers to prepare for both good and bad times,” says Dr. Charles Mwesigye Changa.

But the organization failed to inform farmers that FHIA 17 was meant for consumption as a dessert while FHIA 25 was meant to produce juice.

For thousands of desperate farmers who planted the varieties hoping to consume it traditionally – steamed and served with sauce as is popular in Uganda, it was disappointing to discover that the varieties are not palatable in that form.

Godfrey Kahuuta, a retired teacher who lives in the South Western District of Ntungamo cleared most of his traditional Banana varieties to plant FHIA suckers and has no kind words for NARO. “My family
almost starved,” he reveals, detailing that what he had hoped would save him instead turned into his shame and tormentor as he struggled to feed his family.

Lawrence Tuhumwire says “yes bigger bunches are harvested and FHIA17 needs less care compared to traditional varieties but its tasteless and impossible to eat the traditional way.” Apparently, he uprooted
the FHIA suckers and re-planted traditional varieties.

This FHIA episode now serves to perpetuate public bias against attempts by NARO to apply new agricultural technology. And so far, it’s a well exploited silver-bullet for anti-GM activists who keep
reminding farmers never to forget “the bad turn” like FHIA.

They also suggest that African countries that have adopted GMOs have realized nothing out of it. But evidence shows otherwise.

Uganda, which was historically Africa’s largest producer of Cotton, earns a around $48mn from about 300,000 bales a year. Uganda’s earnings pale in comparison to Burkina Faso, which started growing Bt
Cotton barely four years ago and now earns about $1bn, following a 57% increase in production to 650,000 bales.
It is such African successes stories like Burkina Faso’s that Harvard Professor, Calestous Juma says are evidence that GM crops can help address some of the continent’s agricultural challenges. Relating to the raise of telecom and ICT solutions, he says Biotechnology will help create unique solutions for unique African challenges.

Ultimately, Ugandan scientists are at work developing and testing plant varieties in an attempt to address some of the country’s most enduring issues like Banana Bacterial Wilt.

Dr. Yona Baguma, the Director of Biosciences at Uganda’s National Crop Resources Research Institute – Namulonge says tapping Biotechnology and GM tools is vital in accelerating Science’s role in the transformation and development of the country. “We can’t escape that,” he affirms.

And even as Uganda’s GM-path is marred by controversy, there is hope that out of such will emerge greater and stronger institutions to foster Biosafety. Just as celebrated American Physicist, Lee Smolin once noted, Science always moves fastest when there is plenty of debate and controversy.

Research for this article was done with support from The African Story Challenge @ African Media Initiative.

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