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Friday, 6 September 2013

Can GMOs achieve food sovereignty for Uganda?

First Read;

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Can GMOs achieve food sovereignty for Uganda?

By Peter Kanyandago

Posted  Monday, September 2  2013 at  01:00

In Summary
The claim that GMOs will solve the hunger problem is not verified. The world produces enough food to feed humanity, but of this 30-50 per cent is either not harvested or wasted.

Uganda is concerned about ensuring food security, now also called food sovereignty, for its entire people. Attaining food sovereignty implies that one eats food of good quality, with the nutrients that the body needs, and also one must take food in sufficient quantities.

The Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012, which is before our Parliament, is essentially about putting in place the right conditions to use GMOs safely. GMOs stands for Genetically Modified Organisms - also called genetically engineered seeds or foods. The Bill in question has raised controversy because of some health, scientific and environmental questions which are not yet completely resolved in respect of GMOs.

Aware that many Ugandans go hungry, and others are malnourished, no one in his/her right mind would oppose any move to promote food sovereignty. However, Michael J. Ssali’s article, “Uganda needs to adapt (sic) GMOs and biotechnology” in the Daily Monitor of August 28, gives a general impression that the people opposed to adopting GMOs do not want Ugandans to eat well and enough. He argues that humankind has always interfered with and manipulated nature. The examples he gives however do not correspond to what happens in the case of GMOs.

As the phrase indicates, genetic modification means you modify the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which is the main constituent of chromosomes and is the carrier of genetic information of each living organism. Through genetic modification or engineering, you can grow a cabbage on an ear of a cat! Most genetic modification in crops involves use of a bacteria such Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) and herbicide tolerant technologies. The latter application is to equip the GMOs to resist spraying of herbicides which kill the weeds in which GMOs are growing without killing the crops. Taking all this into account, the idea currently accepted at official level in the US that GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to natural crops cannot be correct.

Questions about the safety of GMOs have been raised by the pioneering research of Dr Arpad Pustzai who worked at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland in 1998. He was sacked when his findings questioned safe use of GMOs. His research has been complemented by that of the Russian scientist, Irina Ermakova. Add to this the work of Gilles-Eric Seralini et al., for example their publication in the International Journal of Biological Sciences in 2009 and another in Food and Chemical Toxicology published in 2012, which focused on Monsanto’s genetically modified NK603 corn.

Detailed references and copies of these articles can be availed on request. The methodology of the authors in the last was strongly opposed by the pro-GMO groups, but the authors have been vindicated even by the European Food Safety Authority, which had initially called into question the authors’ approach.

Mr Ssali makes a cursory reference to the problem of GMOs contaminating natural crops, and yet contamination has legal and economic implications. In May, South Korea and Japan boycotted US commercial wheat when it was discovered that it was contaminated by GMO wheat. In the US itself, a farmer in Oregon found GMO wheat growing in his field and this has raised very serious concerns, which are being addressed by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The fact is that the spread and contamination of genetically modified grains cannot be controlled when they have been produced and grown. This problem, therefore, is neither simple or fiction.

Given the real questions that have not yet been answered, the French President has confirmed moratorium on GM maize. On March 25, there were more than 2 million people in 436 cities from 52 countries who participated in a march against Monsanto who happens to be the biggest player in the field of GMOs. Last month, Chileans in more than nine cities staged a protest against what they called a “Monsanto law” aiming to allow development of GMOs.

It should also be noted that introduction of GMOs will necessarily take away the farmers’ ability and right to produce their own seed and will also mean using more pesticides. The health and environmental risks involved are not to be neglected. Moreover, the claim that GMOs will solve the hunger problem is not verified. The world produces enough food to feed humanity, but of this 30-50 per cent is either not harvested or wasted.

The way forward, I believe, is to ensure that farmers have control over production of seeds and food at local level. We should also join the international search for working on climate changes which disrupt weather patterns. All this should be an invitation to our MPs and scientists to first take stock of what is happening elsewhere before we put all our hopes in a technology that is more bound to compromise food than promoting it.

Prof. Kanyandago is the director of research, Uganda Martyrs University.