It has been argued that we need GMOs in order to solve food security problems in Uganda, but I think this is a delicate matter that demands serious debate.
I agree that farmers everywhere have manipulated and continue to manipulate seeds, soils, crop species and animal breeds to achieve improved food qualities and quantities. Therefore, I am not addressing the question of rejecting or accepting GMOs in Uganda. Instead I question the possibility of GMOs delivering food security given the contexts of the market, policy framework and rights regime.
So I ask three questions: who owns GMO technologies and their resulting products? What is the nature of the market through which Ugandan farmers will acquire the technologies and sell their products? What kind of government policy framework will use GMOs to deliver food security?
First, let me shed some light on the concept of food security. It simply means that food must be available at all times in the right quantities and qualities and it must be culturally acceptable to the consumers.
Food security cannot be considered in isolation from 'human security', which relates to all individuals in a society enjoying food, health, personal, economic, political, community and environmental guarantees. Human security can be viewed as a better alternative to state/national security.
Ownership is determined by whose interests are embedded in the design of a GMO. In Uganda, for example, National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) is developing a strain of genetically-modified matooke which is expected to be rich in iron and Vitamin A and is resistant to a few known pests.
Much as this particular effort targets increased matooke on the national market and child nutrition in banana-growing areas, we would like to know who will benefit from the GMO commercially. This in turn is determined by who owns the rights for creating this new matooke.
Will a farmer in Bushenyi, where there is a lot of malnutrition, for example, have the right to propagate and gift to his friends and neighbours, the plant?
Will he and his friends and neighbours always have to buy each and every seed or sucker from a hitherto unknown investor?
Will the farmer be allowed to use indigenously produced manure or he will have to buy branded fertilizers from the same investor or sister company?
In case farmers have no rights whatsoever except to offer their land for growing GMO matooke, is it still safe to say that this investor rights regime will meet the nutrition needs of children in Bushenyi? Can people without rights over their product use that product to fight malnutrition?
The nature of the market determines whether GMO products will meet food security needs or not. Thanks to colonial legacy, the market in Uganda continues to facilitate the rural-urban movement of fresh and cheap food. What we are likely to see with the proliferation of GMOs is further encroachment by food required for profits in the urban and global markets on subsistence farmers' lands - more nutritious food being produced by very hungry people.
So long as the lopsided market endures, the farmer will have no choice but to deprive his family of the best bunches of GMO matooke in order to sell them to meet the ever spiralling production costs. Food security is an excuse for GMOs as it is for land grabbing: more land is increasingly coming under production for the global market through dubious means under the guise of providing food security.
So, how does GMO policy framework address food security? African governments since colonial times have acted as agents of top-down technology transfer that is in nature more manufacturer (producer)-driven than consumer-responsive. NRM, too, had to domesticate international policies which perpetuate this trend in order to consolidate power after the bush war.
For example, despite the neo-liberal mantra that 'government has no business doing business', NRM government's fervent pursuit of 'market-led' reforms in agriculture betrays a bias towards the international market however detrimental to household food security such reforms may be. Uganda's Vision 2040, which reiterates government's commitment as an agent of producer-driven industries and technologies, provides space for 'top-rated universities' in the United States of America and United Kingdom to set up campuses in Uganda to deliver bio-technology training.
Good as this may seem, this is top-down technology transfer that is designed to benefit the global economic system. There are monocultural communities in Uganda where GMOs in combination with specific other factors can contribute towards addressing food security needs.
For example communities in Busoga (sugarcane), West Nile (tobacco), Bushenyi (bananas) and Karamoja (cattle) can benefit from markets that afford horizontal transfer of the necessary nutritious food products across each other's regional borders. But this requires that the government of the day rethinks its international commitments.
Qualitative policy shifts will have to include legally protecting indigenous knowledge, technologies and the subsequent innovations; embedding genetic engineering within the traditional knowledge systems of the peoples of Uganda.
The author is the country manager, Open Society Initiative for East ernAfrica (OSIEA).