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HomeFood and Farming ScienceThe case of GMOs in Uganda: A strong regulatory environment must be a prerequisite

The case of GMOs in Uganda: A strong regulatory environment must be a prerequisite

The impression being created is that GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are about food security and survival, yet experience shows that they are more about the undisclosed interests of foreigners.

In 2017, a pro-GMO film, Food Evolution, commissioned by the Institute for Food Technologists, was released. The film was partly shot in Uganda. Food industry scientist Marion Nestle appeared in it for 10 seconds saying there was no evidence of harm in eating GMO produce. Later in a blog post, she states she has tried to have the clip deleted because according to her, her comments were edited out of context. She refers to an article in the New York Times in which it is claimed that leaked email evidence shows the GMO lobby pays researchers to front support for the commercial food industry. Not surprising.

To quote Nestle (the researcher, not the food conglomerate), “Food Evolution focuses exclusively on the safety of GMOs; it dismisses environmental issues out of hand. It extols the benefits of the virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya and African banana but says next to nothing about corn and soybean monoculture and the resulting weed resistance, and it denies the increase in use of toxic herbicides now needed to deal with resistant weeds. It says nothing about how this industry spends fortunes on lobbying and fighting labelling transparency.” Nestle adds that GMO lobbyists promote the view that anyone less than enthusiastic about them is “anti-science, ignorant, and stupid”. 

The confluence of GMOs, lobbying and politics is murky, as the faceoff between Nestle and the filmmakers underscores. That Uganda was featured in the film makes it even more relevant, where President Yoweri Museveni recently declined to assent to the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, first passed by Parliament in October 2017. President Museveni sent the Biosafety Act – which would introduce GMOs into the country – back to Parliament in December 2017, citing a number of concerns he had with it, which he said were “inimical to our future”.

Nearly two years later, he recently stated that Parliament has not addressed those issues to his satisfaction in the reviewed legislation now called the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act (GERA) passed in August 2019. His second rejection has reopened the GMO debate, and the name change signals a new understanding of the paramount need to regulate the technology if its promotion is to serve its purpose and achieve its ends.

The argument that GMOs will help ensure food security, end hunger and bring prosperity can be a convincing one. Take for example the fact that undernourishment in Uganda rose by an average one-percentage point a year between 2006 and 2011 and accelerated to an average two percentage points plus every year from 2011 to 2017, according to the World Bank. Statistics from the GMO industry show that harvests can be tripled for some crops; pests can be resisted and droughts can be survived by GMO seeds. For context, there were only three serious droughts in the 60 years between 1910 and 1970 but eight between the 40 years between 1970 and 2010. Coupled with statistics relating to the country’s population growth rate of 3.3% per year and the 42 million mouths to feed, it is easy to make the case for legalisation as soon as possible. Add the promise that the law will recognise citizens as proprietors of the country’s biodiversity and ensure that they are guaranteed a share in biotechnology developed from it and you have a totally seductive package.

Yet in many ways, food security is the least convincing argument for GMOs, especially when it comes in intemperate interventions by foreigners with undisclosed interests. When food security is discussed in forums like the World Economic Forum in Davos, and people like Bill Gates and GMO investors are in attendance yet smallholder farmers from food-insecure countries are absent. The impression created is that people other than Africans have a greater stake in their food security than Africans do. From the standpoint of the Ugandan into whose territory GMOs are about to be introduced, excluding them on the basis that the industry and foreign scientists know and care more about their well-being than ordinary Ugandans themselves is problematic.

The over-arching question now is whether Uganda has a regulatory environment capable of protecting the country’s biodiversity and commercial interests. A good illustration of the importance of sound internal control as a basis for major decisions is the experience of the Uganda’s economic recovery and development programmes of the 1990s. Before agreeing to replace multiple independent and uncoordinated projects with direct budget support through the Treasury, stakeholders (lenders and grant-makers) insisted on audits of the control (regulatory) environment. When it was found to be weak, steps were taken to strengthen it.

When projects went ahead anyway – their perceived urgency overriding due diligence – one can only conclude that a lot of resources, including time, were lost by introducing them into a weak environment. Commercial activities with an environmental impact, such as sand mining, have been damaging to the environment because of similar weaknesses in regulation.

We must always remember that biodiversity is an asset vulnerable to commodification. Dependency on imported seeds that have to be bought every season with a currency that is weaker each year is not a viable solution to hunger. As with the lake and river beds and wetlands nominally protected by the Constitution, the protection of biodiversity can be waived for a “license fee”. In fact, the destruction of many wetlands has been achieved under license from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). Where unlicensed, it has happened under NEMA’s watch.

In the case of GMOs, an audit trail and labelling system of firms, individuals, seeds, other planting materials and chemicals is expected to be maintained so that the origin of specific GMOs can be traced back to the patent-holder, allowing them to be held to account for any undesirable outcomes. It is a beginning, but how capable is the control environment today?

As it is, the statutory National Seed Testing Laboratory was unable to prevent the invasion of the armyworm in 2017. The pest is suspected to have been imported in American produce, yet the Auditor General reported in that year “lack of adequate laboratories for the [post-entry quarantine station] department exposes the whole agricultural sector to risks of inferior crop varieties being imported into the country including failure to control the new invading pests”. And reviewing our recent performance in the agricultural sector we find that an estimated 50% of hybrid maize on the market is counterfeit and/or unlicensed.

Worryingly, this is the environment in which GMO labels are going to be relied on. Approved seeds must be registered in a national seed catalogue; inclusion in the seed catalogue is the country’s only protection from seeds deemed undesirable for scientific or commercial reasons. However, the regulatory environment depends almost exclusively on post-mortem reports by the Auditor General. Abuses cannot be interrupted as they occur. They can only be reported once the (often irreversible) damage is done, as has happened with the wetlands.

To avoid extinction by contamination, or what is called “co-mingling”, there must be distances maintained between indigenous plants and nearby GMOs that could likely contaminate them. The stipulated distances may constitute the entire area available to the average smallholder farmer, the smallholder possibly being prohibited from growing his indigenous plants in the vicinity of his larger commercial GMO neighbour and thus edged out of the industry. If the commercial neighbour happens to be a foreign investor, it goes without saying who would win that turf war.

Logically, if there were genuine concerns about ending hunger, by now development partners would have adopted simpler solutions such as irrigation, and fairer Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with Europe. Non-tariff trade barriers would have been dismantled. However, that has not happened. Ugandan and other African farmers continue to be unable to meet technical requirements for exports designed to limit their market penetration. Value-addition to commodities remains a distant dream under the EPAs, trade with Europe follows the colonial pattern and is mainly in unprocessed commodities.

It is only because of the Brexit crisis that the truth about EPAs was officially acknowledged in a debate in the British Parliament aimed at finding post-Brexit markets. The EPA deals were struck behind closed doors by professional and highly skilled negotiators from the EU, “which the best efforts of their African counterparts just could not match,” Lord David Chidgey remarked in Britain’s House of Lords, in a debate on Brexit. “There was … no public debate. Apparently, the conditions imposed in the EPAs were not scrutinised, and there was no analysis of the long-term impact that their restrictions would have on the economies of the countries they were dealing with.”

If that is the current case with EPAs, how much more or less prepared is Uganda to negotiate GMO agreements? President Museveni’s letter points out that the introduction of GMOs has implications for Uganda’s sovereignty.

EPAs and trade barriers can be used as tools to further both the genuine and predatory investors in GMOs. For example, GMO planting material will come with strict usage instructions. Failure – through ignorance or poverty – to employ the approved regimen, such as fertilisers, could reduce or nullify their export value. In that way, farmers could be locked into patented seed and fertilisers. Furthermore, any liability for harm to humans or damage to the environment could be side-stepped simply by stating that incorrect methods were used.

Extension support is essential for the successful introduction of any crop, but there is an almost total absence of government agricultural extension services since the early 1990s when they were retrenched. (Ugandan soldiers were recently deployed as agricultural extension officers under ‘Operation Wealth Creation’ but they are not an effective substitute.) It was expected that the private sector would fill the gap, but the Kenyan experience is instructive. Organic farmers in Machakos reported that seed sellers deploy salesmen under the guise of extension workers – hardly impartial advice. It is folly to assume that introducing GMOs is a matter of reading the instructions on the tin (assuming you can understand the language and are able to read 9-point text on a grey background).

It is argued that a case-by-case introduction of GMO plants may be feasible. Nothing could be more legally hazardous. A sound regulatory environment is a prerequisite for the legally safe adoption of GMOs. If, for example, a GMO investor sets up shop in Uganda and later the proposed Genetic Engineering Council develops regulations curtailing some of the investor’s activities or banning dangerous ones, the Government of Uganda could – would – be liable for the investor’s financial losses under the investor-state dispute settlement system. Under this mechanism, investors are able to challenge public welfare legislation in countries in which they invest.

Regardless of outcomes (which are often unfavourable to the target State) the arbitration procedure is very costly. For the investor it would not be a bad deal. They would simply calculate how much they expected to profit and be compensated for that without even having done the work. Unscrupulous investors have taken advantage of this legal loophole in other countries where they invest in controversial areas and simply file a suit once the domestic government eventually curtails their activities by law.

But there are other interests, such as domestic scientists who desire and need freedom to operate. In his letter to Parliament, President Museveni highlights the need for domestic research. It is unfortunate that some Ugandan scientists receive warnings about GMOs as indictments of their ability to deliver domestically developed GMOs. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is an opportunity for Uganda to invest in scientific research.

If GMO solutions implemented were home-grown and the fruits of Uganda-funded research, there might be less suspicion and resistance. As it stands now, foreign players are the most vocal and aggressive in this matter because they stand to gain the most by dominating the market. They can also afford to pay for propaganda and, let’s face it, bribes. It is imperative to fight for the rights of domestic scientists and to ensure their research is actually theirs and not commissioned by the GMO lobby.

By Mary Serumaga.

Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King’s College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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