2 June 2013

Uganda: GM Crops May Not Be Right for Uganda


The documentary Inside Job shows how the American financial services industry, with its greed, corruption, and the catch phrase of deregulation, created a financial crisis in a hitherto stable country, Iceland.

In its five parts, the documentary reflects how deregulation of the financial services, an idea, which was also sold to Uganda by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) during the privatisation frenzy, steadily drove a naïve Iceland into a financial crisis in 2008.

Watching that documentary, I could not help thinking that Uganda is headed for a food crisis if it embraces genetically modified (GM) technology with high throttle, thanks to the 'wonderful' and 'reliable' studies and researches by our academics and scientists.

We have a huge lobby system or group that is trying to market the acceptance of GM food in Uganda. Inside Job claims that prior to the invasion of Iceland by the American corporations, several corporations recruited the 'reputable' academics, or Economics professors from famous schools like Columbia Business School to write research papers and author reports which praised the stability of Iceland's economy and banking systems.

These institutions collapsed two years after the launch of these reports. Of course, these professors did not disclose their conflict of interest. They wanted to maintain a position of academic neutrality or independence to give credence to the reports. Even after the financial crisis of 2008, to which they contributed by their slanted and bogus reports, they refused to own up.

The GM campaign has also recruited fairly reputable scientists and politicians to market it to Uganda. We have biologists and geneticists who have held several meetings with the members of Parliament, who are about to write a report on the bio-safety bill.

They have even convinced renowned environment crusader, Kitgum Woman MP Beatrice Anywar, aka Mama Mabira. Other scientists have authored several reports in the newspapers justifying the acceptance of GM crops or the use of genetically modifified technology in agriculture.

It may be difficult to unveil the conflicts of interest of these scientists, but it is not too farfetched to suspect them. The truth is, they will not declare their interest in the matter. A lot of money from international firms has been pumped into this scheme to ensure it succeeds. The knowledge that scientists in Uganda have about GM technology seems to conflicts with what is on the ground. For instance, in western Uganda, the farmers who bought seeds from the seed companies, have woken up to the rude shock.

The yields from these seeds cannot germinate as it were with the organic seeds. So, the farmers are compelled to return to the seed companies. Traditionally, the farmers grew for instance, maize or beans for two purposes. One was to get food for subsistence and commercial purposes, and the other reason was to keep some of seeds in the granary for any incidents of famine and also to be used in the next planting season. Now with the new modified seeds, this is no longer possible.

This has dire consequences on the economy and the welfare of the farmers or peasants. It may mean that the peasant who cannot afford to buy seeds from the seed company may slide into poverty, therefore, remain vulnerable to hunger and famine. I don't think science should chain farmers to unfair economic terms. The same applies to some of the chickens that have been introduced to some farmers.

The eggs cannot hatch into chicks. If the farmer has to expand his business entity, he has to return to the hatchery to buy new chicks. Yes, we need science and technology in agriculture, but we need to take the advice of these scientists with a pinch of salt. We need to ask, who is sponsoring these prominent African scientists to carry out these studies? Why aren't these studies homegrown?

Lest I forget, a story is told of some American yam scientists who came to Kawanda research centre to give advice on how to increase yam yields. The government official then, in the 1980s, who was conducting these scientists around, was shocked when the visitors were shown yams and instead asked what that was! There are no prizes for guessing as to what the government official recommended to his boss. Corruption hadn't infiltrated. They were returned to their universities.

The author is the Business Development Director, The Observer Media Ltd.

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