African elites blame early puberty on GMOs, sabotaging nutrition-enhanced cassava, matooke

| January 30, 2015
ghana anti gmo protest
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

It is fashionable in Africa to blame every strange or inexplicable health condition on genetic engineered food or ingredients. The problems raised in the media and by activist organizations include barrenness, impotence, cancer, obesity, allergies, asthma, autism, aging, etc.

In Uganda, in early January, the daily Monitor newspaper reported on a 3-year-old girl in the rural area of Lwengo, Central Uganda, who has started menstruating, and according to doctors, she has the potential of becoming pregnant.

This is the second strange case of accelerated maturation in the news recently. Last July, in the Newsvision from Gulu district in the Northern part of Uganda, there were reports of a 3-year-old boy who developed all the features of a male adult and was much more energetic than a kid of his age could ever be. There have also been reports of increased cases of Siamese twins reported almost yearly in Uganda from 2011 to 2014 and most cases are from rural areas.

In every case, there were rumors and some media reports that “GMOs are to blame”.

But that couldn’t be the case. All of these cases occurred in rural areas where crops are grown organically; no genetically modified crops are grown in these areas. The problems couldn’t be linked to pesticide use either, as some have claimed. Even if farmers in these regions wanted to spray, they could not because of the costs of pesticides. Most of Uganda’s staples like cassava, banana and sweet potato are grown organically. Uganda does not have any commercially grown GMOs; the few imported foodstuffs like cornflakes made out of GM corn from South Africa and elsewhere are consumed by town dwellers, including the anti GM elites.

It is vital to bring this kind of information to the fore so that the anti GM propagandists who now associate every strange health development to GMOs even when there are clearly no links will not be in a position to manipulated public opinion based on fear when GM crops are finally adopted. Using propaganda to campaign against science will undermine genuine research and hopes to find the real reasons why these 3-year-old infants entered puberty at such a tender age and why rural mothers in organic growing districts are increasingly giving birth to Siamese twins.

In Uganda, aside blackmailing politicians by threatening them with losing votes, anti-GMO elites have petitioned international donors to stop funding GM research in Africa. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) recently lobbied the Gates Foundation to stop supporting the foundation’s initiative to develop a beta-carotene enhanced banana, which is currently in trials. (Distorted in the African anti-biotech petition to the Gates Foundation.)

Uganda’s national agricultural research body (NARO) through its institute, National Agricultural Research Laboratories based in a place Kawanda in Central Uganda in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology in Australia, has been researching this GMO banana in hopes of addressing the rampant symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency in rural areas among pregnant women and infants. The research products (banana fruits) are being tested in trials in the United States as Uganda does not have yet a legal frame work to conduct such evaluations.

Beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, can help improve eye-sight and is vital during cell division at the embryonic level. This innovation could save millions of lives in a country like Uganda and other African countries where Vitamin A deficiency is rampant and promoting nutrient enhanced foods is critical.

In Africa, before more understanding of medical conditions, people with Vitamin A deficiency related problems were either abandoned somewhere in the wild to die by themselves, neglected, divorced, or given strange names like a “Ojok for a boy” or “Ajok for a girl” which is a luo word meaning ‘of the gods’; it was assumed the gods brought  a bad omen that needed to be atoned through rituals, which led to practices of witchcraft.

Uganda is engineering the country’s major staple matooke to produce additional beta-carotene to meet the requirement of Vitamin A in households that depend entirely on bananas for most meals. Uganda is the world’s leading consumer of bananas, especially the East African highland banana, locally referred to as matooke. This consumption rate is mostly from areas in central and western Uganda. The product trials are currently taking place outside Uganda because Uganda does not have a bio-safety law in place to oversee such trials outside confined fields. Even if Uganda had the bio-safety law in place, the anti-biotech campaigners, mostly foreigners, would claim Africans were being used as guinea pigs in GM trials. Now that the trials are outside Africa where laws and established procedures are in place, they are now criticizing GMOs as a human rights issues.

Here are some of their major false criticisms and claims:

  • There are other sources of vitamin A

It is true there are other sources of Vitamin A, like sweet potato, and especially the orange fleshed sweet potato being promoted in Uganda, but only urban dwellers who receive food every day from various rural areas growing different staples can afford them. Rural areas grow and eat mostly one staple. Sweet potatoes are not available throughout the year, while banana is. And sweet potatoes do not remain long under the soil before they go bad. That means that access to beta-carotene in sweet potatoes is not available throughout the year—the nutritional needs of human beings cannot be synchronized with the breeding patterns of sweet potatoes. Beta-carotene is required consistently, especially during pregnancy and at early ages of growth. Unlike crops, human beings do not have compensatory growth.

  • Africans mash banana (matooke) and cannot afford oil to facilitate uptake of vitamin A

This is not true. One has to understand that vitamin A is fat soluble whether it’s derived from GM beta-carotene crop or non-GM beta carotene crop. In Uganda, where the trait was introduced in the sweet type and in the East African Highland plantains commonly known as matooke in Uganda. Matooke is prepared in two primary ways: mixed with meat or in ground groundnuts, and both groundnut and beef have fats. The mashed banana they are talking about is not eaten in isolation but with sauce or soup that contain some amount of fats or oil.

  • “Great strides have been made in the Philippines through distribution of vitamin A supplements without enormous cost or long term effect on human health”

This amounts to hiding behind unknown long term effects to propagate propaganda and avoiding facts. It avoids the scientific fact that beta carotene is far healthier than vitamin A supplements and  that beta-carotene is only converted into vitamin A when our body requires it. Supplying vitamin A supplements is not more sustainable and less costly compared to eating a vitamin A enhanced staple.

  • The world does not need GMOs–but whose world are we talking about?

The “world” that they claim does not need GMOs is not the real world of hungry people but the closed world of some 120 anti-GMO organizations listed in the Gates petition and individuals who subscribe to this anti-science view–a world of privilege and fantasy. Those who are suffering are the poor African mothers who continue to produce Siamese twins and children who go to puberty at the age of 3 because they lacked some nutrient at the early stage of development in their mothers’ wombs.

Isaac Ongu is an Agriculturist and Consultant on Agricultural information dissemination and an advocate on science based intervention in solving Agricultural challenges in developing countries. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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