In Uganda, bunches of bananas could have provided meals to struggling families family had they been a resistant transgenic variety —the type locked up in the country’s research facility.
“I cannot begin to imagine how Canadian farmers would react if they had to mow their wheat fields because of a disease with a solution,” was Nick Saik’s passionate remark when he saw a helpless banana farmer in Uganda carrying a banana diseased from wilt that he had plucked from an 8-month-old banana tree.
Saik was in Africa to shoot part of a documentary titled “Know GMO.” He interacted with and interviewed banana and cassava farmers, scientists and members of Parliament — those looking for a solution to their common problems, disease threatening staple plants in Africa. The available transgenic solution is being fought against by anti-GMO activists despite the benefits the technology provides.
‘Know GMO’ the Documentary
Know GMO is a documentary in development meant to provide “an uplifting discussion about food” to help silence the noise and open the ears to facts that Scientists across the world are speaking. Robert Saik, the executive director of the movie project, gave a TEDx talk, “Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture, in which he outlined the challenges and progress of agriculture and technology in recent decades, and the contribution it has been making toward feeding the ever growing world population. He noted the contribution of fertilizers and pesticides, which led to the Green Revolution and dramatically increased food production.
To Saik, genetic engineering is a continuation of what agricultural scientists have been doing, and he believes it is key in addressing global food challenges like malnutrition and hunger. The well thought title of his address mirrors well the controversies around GMOs. Any view or fact brought forward in support of GMO should no be taken on faith alone; whether it is “Know GMO” or “No GMO”, one has to lend ears to scientific facts to be able to make informed decisions.
When I went to one of the scientists working on developing the transgenic banana and told him there was a crew coming from Canada to film, a movie “Know GMO,” and the director was interested in interviewing him, he was skeptical. “What do those people want?” he said. “I don’t have time for them”.
I explained to him that that the title was “Know GMO” not “No GMO” and the crew only wanted to ask him questions about the work he was doing, including the challenges he was addressing by using genetic engineering as a tool in his crop improvement tool box. The crew leader had told me the various interviews would enable them bring out the science, the facts, the agriculture and food challenges being addressed as they are despite activists’ fear mongering campaigns claiming GE foods would cause sterilization of women and cancer. The movie would focus on scientists who are concentrating on helping farmers facing real problems and inform the public about the emotionally charged scare tactics used by its opponents.
Nick Saik’s view of the “Know GMO” forthcoming Documentary
Nick, the director, said the intention of the “Know GMO” project is to tell the story of modern agriculture from a fresh perspective. He was quick to say he is anti-nothing; rather he is pro food, pro organic, pro GMO, and pro regulations when necessary. He attributes his passion to the need to ensure people stop being afraid of their food. Nick thinks most documentaries on food have been focusing on propagating fear because fear sells. Know GMO will focus on facts and perspectives from scientists, policymakers, consumers and the evidence from farms, from Hawaii to Uganda and Kenya in Africa.
The 27-year-old director said he has been following agricultural issues since he was 13. He acknowledged Agri-trend Executive Director Robert Saik, his dad, for instilling in him the desire to understand agricultural and food related issues. According to Nick, Robert, who doubles as the project’s executive director, is passionate about agriculture and has played a big role in ensuring that this documentary that will bring the voice of scientists in laboratories and farmers in the papaya fields in Hawaii and banana gardens in Uganda to the global audience. It will provide a response to the poster carrying fear mongers on the streets in many western cities, and provide information to many innocent consumers who are trapped in a hostile ring of fear.
Nothing could explain Nick’s passion for this cause than the fact that Nick, a recent newlywed, skipped his honeymoon and came with his new wife Toni to Africa to film how modern biotechnology is helping to solve farming problems in this part of the world. The crew, including Scott Culbertson and Bill Paris from Hawaii, boast over 20 years of film experience.
What are challenges facing the growing of staple foods in agriculture for which GM technology offers a potential solution? Banana bacterial wilt is infecting Uganda’s banana farms, savaging their income and depriving the population of a main source of carbohydrates; and cassava brown streak disease is destroying another key carbohydrate source. Banana and cassava genetically engineered to be resistant to these diseases are locked in Uganda’s research facilities because of the actions of a small but loud minority armed with the ideology of fear more. They are frustrating the voices of reason whose strength and hope lie in the scientific facts, proven over the years, that GM foods are safe and the vigorous safety tests they go through even make them safer.
The Nile analogy
When visitors come to Uganda, one popular place to visit is the source of River Nile, the world’s longest river, which is a 2-hour drive from Kampala. The Know GMO crew did just that. Uganda does not use the Nile water for irrigation but it helps water crop fields in Egypt. Nick in his experience of the Nile few years back in Sudan, was met with gun wielding thugs who ordered him to put his shaking hands on his head and told to look down. Nick intimated the last thing he thought he would see before he was killed were his toes. He began to equate the Nile with trouble.
In Uganda, where the Nile begins its northerly journey, Nick and the crew rode in a boat; everything was peaceful, with birds of varied plumage pecking occasionally. There were no problems. It’s clear there is no problem with the river, it’s with the people around the Nile. That lesson applies to the swirling debate around the technology of genetic engineering, recombinant DNA technology. You could call it tweaking, playing God, or whatever, but there are no serious scientific dangers presented by this technology as it’s presently used–and it’s available to address a problem that is threatening livelihoods of banana farmers in Mpigi that Saik went to visit. The same technology could help rescue cassava crop from the scourge of brown streak disease which causes up to 100% yield loss in non transgenic farmers preferred varieties. Genetic engineering is a tool being used to introduce resistance to the farmers varieties while preserving the taste of cassava and other agronomic attributes that farmers are interested in–yet it’s being blocked.
Whereas the Nile may not make irrigation sense in Uganda because of its other sources of fresh water and enough rainfall, to the Egyptians, the Nile water means everything. Modern biotechnology in the same way; it may not make sense to those who are spoilt for choices, but for African farmers whose staples and livelihoods are being threatened because conventional and organic methods are failing to address their problems, biotechnology becomes a necessity and not just a debate topic for the privileged class in the west.
Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate on science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in developing countries. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.