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Young Ugandan biotech advocates push back against scare tactics of European and American-funded anti-GMO African environmental activists

Jonan Twinamatsiko, a recent graduate of biotechnology from Makerere University in Uganda, belongs to a group of young people facing rising unemployment. A Uganda youth survey published by Aga Khan University in 2016 shows 80 percent of Ugandans are under age 35, and 52 percent of that group is unemployed. Jonan had hoped that by pursuing a degree in biotechnology, he would avoid joining that group.

But midway through his studies, he began to understand the controversies surrounding biotechnology, a discipline that was meant to guarantee him a “future” and deliver glory to his parents in the countryside who practiced agriculture to put him through school.

While many of his classmates resorted to endless worries, Jonan decided to work in defense of biotechnology. He actively challenges what he says are relentless fear-mongering campaigns by anti-GMO groups, many of them based in Europe and with ties to American environmental groups, hyping fake environmental and health hazards of new agricultural technologies.

Jonan’s passion was sparked by his own dwindling job opportunities, but later grew as he strove to fight for the rights of millions of Ugandan smallholder farmers who cannot access products of biotechnology that are locked up in the country’s research facilities. Jonan now works for the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE), a Ugandan-based advocacy group.

Jonan Twinamatsiko at a March for Science event at Makerere University.

During a recent visit to Cornell University for the Global Leadership Fellows Program, Jonan discussed his passion for biotechnology adoption, the leadership program and the biotechnology landscape in Uganda. He worries about the future of the nation’s farmers — including his own parents —  whose source of income is under threat from increasing farming challenges. Many of those challenges, he argues, could be mitigated by biotechnology advances that are being taken too lightly by policymakers:

I am so passionate about biotechnology, not because it is a subject I studied at the University but because I understand and appreciate its useful products could help Ugandan farmers including my parents overcome their various agricultural challenges.  Biotechnology has vast novel applications much needed to better survival of humanity.

Jonan is one of the beneficiaries of the Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows Program.  The program aims to help people like Jonan appreciate the importance of sticking to facts in science communication and policy advocacy. The goal is help them influence policy makers in their countries.

Biotechnology in Uganda

Uganda has been conducting several confined field trials for genetically engineered crops meant to address the country’s various agriculture challenges like pests, disease, drought and nutrient deficiencies. But the lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework still stands in the way of scientists delivering new products to farmers. Jonan thinks the delays could be the result of political pressure and too much confidence being placed in recent good harvests:

In Uganda we politicize everything including science. This causes paralysis that leaves farmers at nature’s mercy. The intermittent good yields that farmers at times have is purely on chance and yet biotech products could bring in more certainty to farming.

Ugandan legislators are expected to continue debating a range of issues raised by President Museveni, when he refused to sign the National Biosafety Bill of 2017.

“My short message to members of parliament is for them to pass the Biosafety Bill now and rescue vulnerable smallholder farmers from looming hunger,” Jonan said.

However, Jonan believe advocating for biotechnology does not come without challenges. Among the biggest of those is the need to overcome the scare tactics employed by anti-GMO activists.

“Some regions in Uganda have been exposed to negative messages that discourage farmers from adopting biotechnology, we may receive hostility from such regions. Limited resources may also hinder our awareness creation activities at the grassroots and yet farmers remain key in creating a great environment for adoption,” Jonan said.

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Scaremongering in Northern Uganda

Evidence of scaremongering was observed recently when the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) — currently researching on GMOs through the Uganda Bioscience Information Center (UBIC) — reached out to farmers and consumers in northern Uganda to create awareness about new products. Before his presentation, Dr. Jimmy Lamo, a rice breeder from the national cereals program, asked the audience what they knew about GMOs.

The response from one member of the audience —a catholic priest — was not encouraging:

We are told GMOs will spoil our soils, we will not be able to replant, and will cause diseases.

Dr. Lamo went on to explain to these farmers that GMOs comprise only 5 percent of his organization’s research and that it is a continuation of decades of scientific progression in breeding.

“As NARO, we have been providing farmers with crop varieties for decades,” he said. “And GMOs will be just an option among several others.”

On the issue of safety, Dr. Lamo reaffirmed to farmers how the process of developing a GMO crop in Uganda undergoes a very rigorous regulatory process.

“Our work is highly regulated by the National Biosafety Committee. No GMO will be released to farmers if it is not safe,” Dr. Lamo told members of his rural audience.

Douglas Peter Okello, the chairperson of Omoro District Local Government also expressed concern over the glyphosate scare in his district.

“We have been using Glyphosates to clear our Garden but increasingly there are people discouraging us from using it,” he said.

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Fear expressed in the recently passed GE regulatory bill

Fears of GMOs came to the fore when members of the Ugandan parliament debated a clause on liability in a new GE regulatory bill. The progressive lawmakers who understand how science operates, felt liability should be imposed only when there is a deliberate action that causes harm.

Opponents, however, successfully pushed for a liability clause stating: “A person who owns a patent in a Genetically Modified Material (GEM) is strictly liable for any harm, injury or loss caused directly or indirectly by such a GEM to community livelihoods, indigenous biodiversity, ecosystem, species of flora and fauna, human or animal health.”

Speaker Rebecca Kadaga argued that the strict liability clause criminalized a developer for undertaking genetic engineering:

You are now criminalizing somebody for engineering, you are now saying if you make it you are in trouble.

The minister of agriculture also weighed in on why there was no need for strict liability. “There is a process that confirms that the product is safe, putting it (strict liability) on the proprietor is a bit too much for us,” said Vincent Ssempijja.

The chairman of the parliamentary Committee of Science and Technology who oversaw the process of these amendments, however felt the position of strict liability was that of “Ugandans”.  The issue here is caution, this being a new science. Ugandans are saying that they are not sure about this new science as much as the procedure is rigorous enough to filter bad effects.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow him on Twitter @onguisaac.

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