East African scientists defend work on GMOs

Saturday August 17 2013

By CHARLES KAZOOBA Special Correspondent

Scientists in East Africa have launched a campaign to defend their work on genetic modification.

The scientists say it is time they spoke out against the anti GMO campaigns, by activists who claim genetically modified foods are harmful to humans and that they are used by big agribusiness firms to control global seed markets and farmers around the world.

In Uganda, scientists led by the National Research Agriculture Organisation (NARO), are organising public meetings to engage stakeholders on a common position on GMOs just before the country’s biotechnology and biosafety draft law is tabled in September.

The Ugandan scientists appear to have borrowed a leaf from their Kenyan and Tanzanian colleagues — especially the latter, who under the Academy of Sciences conducted public dialogue across the country on agricultural biotechnology, in particular GM technology — to demand answers from those opposed to GMOs.

“If they don’t want us to use genetic modification to get better crop varieties, what alternative do they have for us?” asked Erostus Nsubuga, the chief executive officer of AGT Laboratories, adding that for some crops, genetic modification is the best method to produce drought and disease-resistant varieties.

In Kenya, scientists have started a public campaign to lift the ban on GMO maize imports. Kenya’s ban came after the release of a controversial study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini that linked cancer in rats to consumption of GM foods.

Scientists fear that Kenya’s recent banning of the importation of genetically modified organisms will deal a blow to progress on biotechnology research and development in the country.

At the engagement meetings in Uganda, researchers explain the scientific trials they have conducted, and argue against what they call “myths” commonly used to campaign against GMOs. They say farmers are slowly buying into this process.

“In fact, our problem now is that farmers are getting disappointed with us for not providing them with GMO seeds, which are lifesavers. But this is impossible, because there is no enabling law,” said Barbara Zawedde Mugwanya of the National Crops Resources Research Institute during the first Biennial National Biosafety Conference at Makerere University held from July 29-31.

In April this year, the Ugandan GM lobby invited US-based Kenyan scientist Prof Caleston Juma for a public lecture on the use of science and engineering for rapid economic transformation.

The lobby followed this up at the Makerere conference lecture by inviting prominent pro-GMO journalist-cum-scientist and Oxford University associate researcher Mark Lynas.

“I am not saying you should be aggressively pro-GMO as the ultimate solution, but rather you should be pro-choice,” said Mr Lynas.

Mr Lynas founded the anti-GMO movement in America but in 2009 renounced his stance.

“I wasn’t an expert on these issues. I had to go back and do some reading to undo the damage. I thought scientists were doing genetic engineering to create monsters or try to take over the world,” he said.

Uganda is also partnering with specialist biotech communication firm International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), to establish a centre to manage information sharing and link with 25 similar information centres in Europe, America and Africa.

ISAAA was key in passing Kenya’s Biosafety Act (2009), the GM importation debate (2011) and more recently during the GM foods importation ban by the Cabinet (2012) in Kenya.

Ugandan scientists plan upcountry biotechnology meetings, annual biotech events and radio talk shows to engage farmers, as well as mentor science teachers to bring schools on board.

Scientists believe GM has the potential to reduce the cost of producing food, increase yields and bring into cultivation land that might otherwise have remained barren, thus helping to feed the growing number of the world’s hungry.

Uganda’s government has put emphasis on genetically modified crops as a way to improve food security.

For example, Uganda produces almost nine million tonnes of bananas in a year, but in the past decade, bacterial wilt disease has been cutting banana yields by 30 to 50 per cent in many regions of Uganda.

With no pesticides or chemicals to stop the banana disease, scientists at NARO have engineered a bacteria-resistant version of the banana by putting a pepper gene into the plant. The scientists intend to give the GM banana for free to millions of Ugandan families once the law is passed.

The same could happen with a transgenic virus-resistant cassava, a crop that is more important in protecting families against famine the than bananas.