ActionAid criticises Ugandan counterpart for saying GM crops cause cancer

Tuesday March 24 2015

The issue of GM crops in Uganda remains highly controversial nearly 20 years after the first commercial crops were developed. PHOTO | FILE

British NGO ActionAid has criticised its Ugandan subsidiary for saying that genetically modified (GM) crop use in Uganda could potentially cause cancer.

"ActionAid in Uganda should not have told farmers that GM technology could potentially cause cancer," the London-based aid agency said.

"As a matter of principle, ActionAid is neither for nor against GM technology. We recognise that in some areas it has worked but in others it has not, and that context is everything. If country programmes decide to campaign against the introduction of GM technology, we ask that they do so through the lens of our expertise.

"That lies in tackling rural poverty through the promotion of sustainable agriculture. ActionAid works with tens of thousands of poor farmers worldwide in agro-ecology that encourages biodiversity."

The statement follows comments from a senior ActionAid official in Uganda to The Independent saying the charity shows farmers pictures of rats with tumours as part of its campaign to prevent GM technology from being made legal in the country. Scientists say the campaign spreads fears that have no basis in fact.

Fredrick Kawooya, the policy and campaigns manager at ActionAid Uganda, told The Independent that the organisation was trying to mobilise opposition to the GM plant from farmers and the public. “In our communication we use the simplest message you can take to the farmer to understand the risk,” he said.


“I am saying [to farmers] that eating GM food could potentially cause cancer. There is a photo of the rats that had cancer. Then I explain that research has been done and they used the rats and this was the result. We say because of the uncertainty we can also conclude that if this food is not safe and can cause it in rats, it can also cause it in the human. And that’s it. Research has been done.”

However, in its story, The Independent said the study referred to by Mr Kawooya has been retracted by the journal that published it.

ActionAid has also commissioned radio commercials warning of the dangers of eating GM foods despite a ruling by the World Health Organization that they have “no effects on human health”. The move is controversial because the GM projects being developed in Uganda are philanthropic.

Controversial subject

The issue of GM crops in Uganda remains highly controversial nearly 20 years after the first commercial crops were developed.

Uganda is at the forefront of the battle over GM and a law that would allow a genetically modified version of the country’s staple food – matoke, or green banana plant – to be grown by farmers.

READ: East Africa divided over adoption of GM foods

Scientists have developed the plant, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to give it resistance to a bacterial disease – known as “banana wilt” – that has devastated crops. Anti-GM campaigners fear that this will enable big biotech companies such as Monsanto to enter the Ugandan market.

Scientists in Britain said the case is not an isolated incident and that some NGOs had been using “wildly inaccurate scientific allegations” as a campaigning tool to stop projects that could improve food security.

Dale Sanders, head of the John Innes centre for research and training in plant and microbial science, told The Independent: “I find it very sad that NGOs whose stated aim is to improve food security and prevent malnutrition should be making false suggestions that GM crops are any less safe than conventional breeding. GM technology offers huge potential to improve yields and combat disease in crops that millions of people rely on.”