Uganda’s costly dithering on GMOs

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Credit: Elizabeth Pohl/GFAR
Credit: Elizabeth Pohl/GFAR

Uganda has a very extensive research and confined field-testing program for GMO crops that include disease-resistant potatoes, cassava and bananas, vitamin A-fortified bananas and cassava, insect-resistant cotton and drought-tolerant rice.

And the fruits of these efforts, which could significantly bolster the agricultural sector, have been denied to the citizens of Uganda because of the failure of the President Museveni to sign the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill because of concerns the Bill does not have enough safeguards for health, the environment and biodiversity.   

The Bill, which was initially tabled in 2012 and passed by the Parliament in October of 2017, was intended to enable farmers to grow GMO crops and utilize newer forms of genetic engineering in crop production. At the time of its passage, Elioda Tumwesigye, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovations, said the Bill would: 

Alleviate our farmers from the devastation and impoverishment often caused by crop diseases, animal diseases, uncontrolled use of expensive pesticides and unpredictable weather and drought occasioned by climate change…Give the country opportunities to use all science and technological options including modern biotechnology tools to handle crop and animal diseases and other stresses that cannot be effectively handled by conventional tools…will support our scientists to fully and safely utilize their advanced knowledge and capabilities in biotechnology to help us solve contemporary challenges especially in health, agriculture, industry and environment; Unlock the full potential of our economy to create wealth and jobs for our young people as well as shared prosperity for all using all facets of the bio-economy.

At the time of the Bill’s passage, the National Biosafety Committee was overseeing 20 confined field trials of GM crops of rice, corn, banana, cotton, soybean, potato and sweet potato. Yona Baguma, Deputy Director General of the National Agricultural Research Organization, indicated there were 12 products ready for patenting, licensing, direct sale and commercialization, including new banana, barley, coffee and sorghum varieties, biofortified iron and zinc beans, virus-resistant cassava and a fast-growing variety of the Nile Tilapia.

The Bill was praised by scientists. Andrew Kiggundu, a plant biotechnologist and breeder, said, “GM seed and varieties will be great opportunities for farmers to sustain and or increase agricultural production by saving losses due to pest disease, drought and the ever-increasing cost of labor.”

Dr. Andrew Kiggundu. Credit: Sunrise

Despite its warm reception by the scientific community and farmers who would benefit from the introduction of biotechnology to agriculture, President Museveni refused to sign the Bill, complaining it grants monopoly patent rights. He also expressed concerns that GMO seeds should never be randomly mixed with indigenous seeds just in case they turn out to have a problem. 

The reluctance to sign the Bill without further revisions reflects an active anti-GMO lobby which has been vocal in its opposition to the bill and has urged the President not to sign it or to ask for revisions that effectively cripple the use of biotechnology in agriculture.  

In 2015, the Participatory Ecological Use Management of Uganda Association wrote an open letter to Parliament objecting to the Biotechnology Bill saying: 

The massive introduction of GMO’s will increase family farmer’s dependency on agro-industry. Farmers will be locked into buying costly protected (patented) seeds and expensive fertilizers. This will increase costs of production [and will] affect Uganda’s bio-diversity and local varieties and animal breeds which are core for research, sustainability and development. The relevant Parliamentary Committee has so far not addressed the safety concerns sufficiently raised in scientific literature with regard to the introductions of GMOs for humans and the environment.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, which is headquartered in Kampala, wrote an Open Letter to President Museveni on August 31, 2019, that called on him to:

Proceed with caution on GE technology, including gene editing and other modern biotechnology methods which are still the subject of much debate around the world.  We recognize that Africa is gradually being introduced to new and untested biotechnologies involving gene editing and gene silencing. This is a real threat in countries like South Africa and Nigeria…the commercial interests promoting genetic engineering need to be balanced against the need to protect the ordinary Ugandan Citizen from real and potential harm. Health and wellbeing rather than profit, must be our primary concern.

In 2019, referring to GMOs, Agnes Kirabo of the Food Rights Alliance said, “Globally there is consensus that this is not a safe technology.”  

In March of 2020, after the Biotechnology Bill had gone through revisions, and after he refused to sign it two times, President Museveni indicated he was prepared to sign it. He directed the ruling National Resistance Movement to convene a meeting to resolve all outstanding issues that prevented a new revised Bill from being passed. He accused groups that opposed the legislation of harboring anti-science attitudes and said, “Initially, the GMO opponents had some good reasons but…we shall now…resolve this.”

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. Credit: Sumi Sadruni/AFP

It appears that besides rhetoric support, President Museveni has done nothing concrete to get the Bill, which has been renamed the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Law, passed. It is a strange paradox in this regard that the President is trying to procure COVID vaccinations, many of which are the product of genetic engineering, that can save lives, but has refused to push a biotechnology law through Parliament that can potentially revolutionize Ugandan agriculture. 

The failure to approve the Biotechnology Bill will prove to be very costly for the economy because it will prevent farmers from growing drought-, insect- and disease-resistant crops and crops that are biofortified.  

Biofortified crops in this regard can have a great impact on improving the health of the population. A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report noted:

Limited data available in Uganda shows that among children younger than 5 years, 53% suffer from anemia, 29% from stunting, and 11% from underweight.  Among women of reproductive age, 32% have anemia and 9% suffer from underweight.

In 2016, an estimated 9% of children 6-59 months suffered from Vitamin A deficiency, which contributes to blindness and is associated with significant morbidity and mortality from common childhood infections.  A paper in the March 2021 Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, entitled, “Reassessing the Cost-Effectiveness of High-Provitamin A Bananas to Reduce Vitamin A Deficiency in Uganda,” noted that Vitamin A bananas, which Ugandan scientists have worked on developing, “could be very cost-effective” means of dealing with Vitamin A deficiency. 

Genetically engineered Vitamin A-fortified cassava, rice and sorghum have all been developed along with crops biofortified with zinc and iron. Such crops could substantially increase the health of the general population if widely available.

Crop losses due to diseases and insects are very costly to Ugandan farmers. Ongoing trials in Uganda of GMO corn seeds that are drought tolerant and insect resistant under the auspices of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa program indicate strong resistance to the stem borer and fall armyworm pests. Commenting on the results, Godfrey Asea, director of the National Crops Resources Research Institute, said, “The maize plants labeled GMO were tall and green, while the non-GMO versions were riddled with insect damage and much smaller, displaying yellowing leaves and smaller seed cobs.”  Asea indicated that the average corn yield for Ugandan farmers was 2.5 tons per hectare but with better crop management and stacked GMO seeds conferring insect and drought resistance, farmers would be able to achieve a yield of 8-10 tons per hectare.   

Scientists in Uganda have been able to develop a GMO potato that is resistant to potato blight, which was responsible for the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. In field trials, the GMO potato, which has three genes from a wild potato variety, demonstrated 100% resistant to blight. The potato if cultivated is expected to have a potential yield of 35-40 tons of hectares. This compares to 20 tons per hectare for the non-GMO potato. Annual losses from potato blight are estimated at around $129 million

Credit: CIP

Banana wilt threatens the banana crop, a vital sector of the economy. It accounts for the largest cultivated area among staple food crops and is the largest consumed food with average per capita annual consumption of about 600 pounds. This compares to 27 pounds in the US.  Bananas are consumed as fruit; prepared by cooking, roasting, or drying; and fermented for the production of banana juice and alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, and gin). Banana wilt therefore represents a severe threat to the livelihood of many farmers as well as the food supply. Economic losses from banana wilt are estimated at $200 million to $295 million a year. Ugandan scientists have conducted field trials for GMO banana varieties that are resistant to the disease. 

Cassava is the second largest food crop in Uganda after bananas. It is eaten raw, boiled, fried and roasted, made into a flour, can be used as animal feed, made into a starch and used to make cakes, biscuits, pastries, beer, paint, adhesives and detergent. As is the case with bananas, scientists are working on a GMO variety of cassava that is immune to two major diseases; brown streak and mosaic. Brown Streak Disease is estimated to cause losses of about $750 million a year in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi.

President Museveni’s failure to sign the Biotechnology Bill has resulted in Uganda falling behind other African nations which are adopting biotechnology as a means of increasing food output, boosting farm incomes, dealing with climate change and growing disease-resistant crops. Kenya (cotton), South Africa (cotton, corn and soybeans), Nigeria (cotton and cowpeas), Eswatini – formerly Swaziland – (cotton), Sudan (cotton), Malawi (cotton) and Ethiopia (cotton) have embraced GMO crops. 

Several other African nations appear to be on the verge of sanctioning the commercialization of GMO crops. Ghana and Burkina Faso, for example, have conducted confined field tests of GMO cowpeas and there are expectations their governments will soon approve full-scale commercialization of the crop. 

Kenya has successfully field-tested GM insect-resistant corn and is expected to begin commercialization by 2023 and Nigeria has conducted performance trials for genetically engineered high-yielding nitrogen-efficient, water-efficient, salt-tolerant (NEWEST) rice. It is able to resist drought, withstand salty soil and make use of limited nitrogen in the soil, thus reducing the need for fertilizer. 

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Ugandan scientists have proved they have the expertise to master genetic engineering technology, which will have great beneficial impact on crop production, farm income and the health of its citizens by biofortifying crops. All that is lacking is the political will on the part of the President to sign the Biotechnology Bill.  Every day he delays is costly to the Ugandan people and economy.  

The reality is that regardless of whether the Biotechnology Bill is signed or not GMOs will come to Uganda because farmers will smuggle seeds from Kenya, which it shares a 506-mile border with. Kenya has made a firm commitment to enhancing its agricultural sector by utilizing biotechnology. It has sanctioned the commercialization Bt cotton and Bt corn is expected to begin to be commercialized by 2023. Approval for the cultivation of disease-resistant cassava will probably follow shortly thereafter. Other GMO crops in development stage in Kenya include Vitamin A- and zinc-fortified sorghum, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and bananas resistant to banana wilt. Kenyan scientists are also utilizing genetic engineering to develop disease resistant cattle. Uganda should be following Kenyans’ lead and not procrastinating in adopting a technology that will have great benefit to helping the country sustainably feed a growing population.        

Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project   

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