‘Lack of political will, strengthening opposition’ hinder GMO uptake in EA

Saturday November 2 2013

By KEVIN J KELLEY Special Correspondent

East Africans advocating the use of genetically modified crop seeds face a “long, hard and incremental effort” in bringing them to market, a Washington-based think tank has said in a report published last week.

“Sustained political will” on the part of national leaders is required in order for GM technology to be adopted in East Africa, the report observes. Even then, however, the push for acceptance will likely encounter “stalls and regressions due to strengthening of opposition” to GM methods of farming.

The study by researchers Kristin Wedding and Johanna Nessuth Tuttle of the Centre for Security and International Studies examines the state of GM crop development in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

It also explores the political dimensions of the issue in each of the three countries. The debate over GM crops in East Africa is generally “infused with polemical and often exaggerated claims on both the benefits and risks of the technology,” the report observes.

It says Kenya has made considerable progress in researching and testing GM crops, but the technology lacks “steady champions within government” to push for official adoption.

A significant setback occurred in 2012 when Beth Mugo, then Kenya’s Minister of Public Health, declared a ban on all GM technology, “despite her lack of jurisdiction,” the report recounts. Ms Mugo allegedly acted in response to what Ms Wedding and Ms Tuttle describe as a “widely discredited study” by a French scientist claiming that GM maize produces serious disease in rats.

Kenya could nevertheless allow GM cotton to enter the commercial market as early as 2014, the report predicts.

Such a move “may push forward demand and open new potential for adoption,” the researchers add. They say that acceptance of GM crops in any of the East African countries is likely to spur adoption in others due to the close commercial ties within the region.

Political barriers to official approval of GM crops are lower in Uganda than in Kenya or Tanzania, the report says. That is partly because Uganda’s “less democratic political structure has facilitated dissemination of a more uniformly positive message on the technology.”

In addition, the report notes, “Uganda’s burgeoning scientific capacity, research progress and broader political will provide a great source of enthusiasm for GM advocates on the continent.”

But early adoption of GM crops is unlikely in Uganda, the researchers suggest. More pressing political matters will likely dominate high-ranking officials’ attention as the 2016 elections approach, the report speculates, adding that GM opponents “are beginning to mobilise more aggressively.”

Among these three East African countries, Tanzania exhibits the highest degree of public antipathy toward GM crops, the US researchers say.

No testing of GM crops is underway in Tanzania. In Kenya and Uganda, by contrast, research is being carried out on GM maize, cotton and cassava. Kenya is also studying genetically modified sorghum, sweet potatoes and pigeon peas, while Uganda is testing GM bananas and rice.

Tanzania’s top leaders are believed to support adoption of the technology, but the country’s “thick bureaucracy” hampers movement on any issue, the report states.

Strong US support for Tanzania’s development initiatives could exert countervailing pressure in support of GM crops, the report suggests. It notes in general that as agricultural development becomes a higher priority of US aid programmes, “more emphasis is likely to be placed on GM technology.”

Arguments in the region over GMOs reflect those being made in other parts of the world, the report says, noting that researchers and opposition groups in all three EA countries are largely supported by US and European governments and NGOs.

Current position

Only three sub-Saharan countries are currently producing GM crops commercially. South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan permit the sale of GM cotton, while South Africa is the only sub-Saharan nation to produce genetically altered food crops. Most of its maize and soya come from GM seeds, the report says.

Much of the opposition to the technology reflects fears that commercialisation of GM crops would result in a significant loss of trade with European countries, which largely prohibit sale of genetically modified crops.

But such worries are largely unwarranted, the report maintains. It notes that most of the crops undergoing GM testing — such as cassava, potatoes and maize — are traded within the EAC, not internationally.

The researchers claim that their report neither supports nor opposes GM farming in East Africa. But they recommend that biotechnology be considered and presented as “a tool to fight poverty and improve food security.”

The report also asserts, however, that GM technology is “not a silver bullet for increasing food security in Africa.” The researchers add that many interventions other than genetic alterations — such as greater mechanisation of agriculture, better irrigation and improved planting techniques — can improve food security.

But GM crops are generating particular interest, the report adds, because of their ability to combat pests, improve nutrition and reduce use of water and chemicals in agriculture.