The Ugandan government has introduced a law allowing the cultivation of genetically-modified crops, in an effort to improve production and tackle the food shortages faced by around 11 million of its citizens
The Ugandan government has introduced a law allowing the cultivation of genetically-modified crops, in an effort to improve production and tackle the food shortages faced by around 11 million of its citizens, reports the Guardian.
Egypt, South Africa and Sudan have already legalised genetically-modified crop cultivation.
Trials for a genetically-modified (GM) banana variety that is resistant to bacterial wilt and contains vitamin A have been ongoing in Uganda since 2004.
Wilt has destroyed many farms in the country and requires many hours of additional crop management to keep it at bay.
Parliament passed the national biotechnology and biosafety bill in October 2017 to allow the GM crop to be released to the public.
It includes safety guidelines and the requirement of committee approval for any farm or company that wants to plant or sell GM seeds in Uganda.
Scientists’ methods and technologies will be monitored by the national varieties committee and must be approved before being made publicly available.
Uganda is a signatory to the Cartagena protocol on biosafety, which acts to ensure the safe handling, use and transfer of organisms resulting from biotechnology.
GM bananas could be available for public use from 2021, and other GM trials have included developing cassava resistant to brown streak, bollworm-resistant cotton and drought-resistant maize.
It is hoped that the new technologies will tackle food shortages and malnutrition, including vitamin A deficiency.
A report released in February, 2017 concluded that 10.9 million Ugandans were struggling with acute food insecurity and 30% of the population lacked sufficient nutritional value in their diet, according to the 2017 national household survey.
On average, 30% of citizens do not get enough vitamin A from their food, with the World Health Organisation classifying a deficiency for 15% of the population as severe.
This nutritional deficiency is largely due to the effects of climate change, pests and diseases on crop production, as well the tendency for people in Uganda to feed mainly on staples rather than including vegetables in a varied diet.
Agriculture experts however, following a meeting in Kampala in August 2017, warned that Uganda was not ready for GM crops.
General Manager of Amfri Farms Limited, Lilian Anguparu, argued that trying out a system of which the aftermath and consequences are unknown is very risky.
More generally, critics say GM crops will bind farmers to big agribusiness from having to buy seeds every season, whilst currently Ugandan farmers produce 80-85% of their own seeds and save some of the harvest as seed for the next season.
Professor Ogenga Latigo, MP and campaigner for biotechnologies, rebukes the criticisms of GM cultivation, saying they are unjustifiable through science.
He argues that the only difference between conventionally grown and genetically modified crops is that the former uses conventional breeding methods to modify the plant, whilst the latter uses genetic engineering or biotechnology.
The labels of GMOs (genetically engineered crops) and non-GMOs allow sceptics to demonise the new technology, he says.
Priver Namanya Bwesigye, a plant biotechnologist at the National Agricultural Research Organisation, said: “Now that the law has been passed, we’re able to go for open-field trials [of the technologies] before releasing them to the public.
“[Malnutrition] is rampant in communities feeding a lot on staple [crops].
“We are addressing communities feeding on these bananas every day.
“Farmers will still be free to grow their indigenous seeds and save them for another season if they want… But the yield won’t be enough to ensure food security or [a good] income.”