Ugandans are divided over an attempt by some parliamentarians to introduce a bill that supports the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country.
Led by Barbara Ntambirweki, a research fellow with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), some Ugandans, including civil society organizations, have rejected the bill, saying it seeks to smuggle GMOs in to the country without proper safeguards.
They also argue that the government and its agencies are using the threat of hunger and the recent attack by armyworms to convince the population that GMOs are the only solution to the country’s agricultural challenges.
A genetically modified organism is an organism whose DNA has been modified with another organism through genetic engineering.
“If they think they will have it easy when they introduce the bill again they are joking. We are even more organized than before,” Ntambirweki said.
A Controversial Bill
The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 was first presented to parliament in 2013 amid serious opposition from civil society, forcing the House Speaker to send it to the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology for further review.
Although the committee is yet to return the bill to parliament, debates about it have resumed in earnest following President Yoweri Museveni’s recent statement urging parliament to pass the bill quickly “to help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture sector is facing.”
Benefits vs. Risks
The call by President Museveni is his first public comment on the controversial subject since the bill was first drafted, and now some people see his remarks as his official stance.
But Ntambirweki laughs off a suggestion by the proponents of the bill that the recent attack by armyworms has softened the anti-GMO lobby’s resolve to oppose the new law.
Those opposed to the bill cite the catastrophic introduction of genetically modified cotton in Burkina Faso as a perfect example of how disastrous GMOs can be.
The genetically modified cotton led to a dramatic drop in the quality of Burkinabe cotton, even though its cotton has been regarded as the best cotton in the market.
Cotton farmers in Burkina Faso have since abandoned the new seed variety, saying it produces poor quality cotton and has a shorter fiber length.
But those supporting the use of GMOs in Uganda are convinced that the ongoing attack on maize crops by the fall armyworms can easily be stopped with the introduction of GMO maize.
They claim GMO maize is not susceptible to the destructive worms as well as other pests and diseases.
Secret GMO Research
This debate comes hot on the heels of revelations that Uganda currently has the largest number of GMO crops under study at the National Agriculture Research Organization (NARO) in Africa.
Headed by Dr. Ambrose Agona, the director general of NARO, a team of pro-GMO scientists have been carrying out secret GMO research on a variety of crops in Uganda, including maize, bananas, potatoes, rice, cassava, and sweet potatoes.
In March, at the height of the armyworm invasion, Agona told the press that NARO has developed several GMO crop varieties that are resistant to drought, pests, and diseases, but the law forbids their use.
Those who are opposed to GMOs say they are inherently harmful to human health, with some even suggesting that prolonged consumption of GMOs can change a person’s DNA.
But pro-GMO scientists insist that the genetic modification of organisms has offered numerous solutions to many problems that have bedeviled the world for a long time.
Time will tell whether GMOs will ultimately be introduced in to the East African nation.
by Fredrick Ngugi