GMOs in East Africa: Food Security Boon or Seed Stealing Ploy?

Nalwoga Mary picks coffee berries from a tree in her farm in Wakiso, Uganda, March 10, 2023. (Photo/Nakisanze Segawa, Global Press Journal Uganda)

In Summary
In East Africa, concerns for food security are quickly followed by concerns for food sovereignty. And in Uganda, farmers worry they won’t have a say.

This story was originally published by Global Press Journal. 

WAKISO, UGANDA – Outside her brick house in central Uganda’s Kavule village, Nalwoga Mary, 89, gently spreads out seeds of maize and beans on a tarpaulin. The seeds will be out in the sun all day, every day for almost a week until the moisture completely dries out. They will then be stored either in a plastic container or plastic carryout bags for use in the next growing season. Every harvest, Nalwoga saves around 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of maize and bean seeds. 

Spread over 3 acres of land, her farm has coffee, sweet potatoes, beans, maize and a Ugandan staple: matooke, a type of green banana grown in the country and other places in East Africa. Drying, storing and replanting the seeds is a routine she has followed for over 60 years now. But a recent conversation with her coffee buyer has raised some apprehensions in Nalwoga’s mind. The buyer informed her about neighbouring Kenya’s recent decision to cultivate and import genetically modified organisms and told her what that could mean for farmers like her in Uganda.

The coffee buyer was referring to the Kenyan government’s decision in October last year to allow cultivation and importation of GMO foods 10 years after banning their use. The move prompted civil society groups in both Kenya and Uganda to sue the Kenyan government. As a result, the Kenyan high court has halted the government’s decision for now. 

Uganda is bordered to the east by Kenya. The two countries trade agricultural products, including seeds. Kenya’s decision has ignited conversations around GMOs in Uganda. Those against GMOs worry the move will promote seed dependency, a form of “neo-colonialism in Africa,” as put by David Kabanda, executive director of the Center for Food and Adequate Living Rights, a local nongovernmental organization. Meanwhile, proponents of GMOs insist the move is solely to address the challenge of food security. 

In the middle of all this, farmers like Nalwoga are left clueless, uninformed, and worried.

The first time Nalwoga heard of GMOs was on a local radio show in 2017, where two opposing agriculturalists debated the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill of 2012 that, if signed into law, would allow the cultivation of GMOs in Uganda. Since then, she hadn’t heard anyone around her speak about GMOs, until the recent conversation with her coffee buyer brought the subject back to mind. 

Even though Uganda President Yoweri Museveni declined, in 2012 and 2017, to sign into law the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, it is still an active issue in the country. In October 2022, the Ugandan Parliament planned to introduce a bill prohibiting GMOs, but the bill has still not been introduced. Despite repeated requests for comment, Global Press Journal did not receive a response from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.

Andrew Kiggundu, an agricultural consultant affiliated with the National Agricultural Research Organization, a government agency, says there is nothing wrong with African countries adopting “agricultural innovation” to feed their growing populations. “What is wrong with looking for different seeds that are resistant to drought, pests, insects — issues that have become a problem to local indigenous seeds?” he says. The cultivation of GMO crops in Africa started with cotton in 1997 in South Africa. This was followed by maize in 1998 and soybean in 2001. So far, four African countries — South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan — grow genetically engineered crops, but only South Africa and Egypt grow GMO food. Other African countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia banned the cultivation of GMOs, citing health and environmental concerns, but have accepted imports of GMO crops.

Eddie Mukiibi, the executive director of Slow Food Uganda, a grassroots organization that works to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, says the Kenyan government’s decision should have everyone in Uganda and across the continent worried. “What is clear is that companies like Monsanto are propagating the false narrative that GMOs will eradicate food security in Africa with a selfish intention to create a food dependency on Western seed corporations, with the purpose of providing markets for their seeds … not because they care about the hunger issue in Africa,” he says.

But Alexander Hennig, a spokesperson for Bayer AG, says, “To secure food supply in times of climate change, we need more openness to innovation.” The Germany-based multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company acquired the United States company Monsanto in 2018, though the combined crop science division is still informally identified by the Monsanto name. “Bayer highly welcomes the science-based decision of the Kenyan and other African governments to lift the ban on growing and importing GMOs,” Hennig says. “Combating hunger and ensuring food security is at the core of what we are doing.”

In 2021, hunger affected 278 million people in Africa. The region has the highest prevalence of undernourished people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. But the story of Uganda is different. According to the World Food Programme, up to 40% of fruits and vegetables in Uganda are lost to disease, pests, and rot. More than 12% of maize grain produced in the country is wasted on the field due to prolonged field drying and late harvests. And another 18% is lost during transportation, processing, drying and poor storage. In fact, the FAO notes that 89% of people in Uganda are food secure and can afford three meals a day, apart from the Karamoja region where food harvests are low due to dry weather. 

David Kabanda, from the Center for Food and Adequate Living, says Africa’s food security problem isn’t because Africans are not growing enough food for the continent’s population. “The challenge is the leaders’ failure to implement policies and infrastructure that would ensure food security, such as food storage facilities for the surplus food produced [and] expanding irrigation services for water supply to farmers in dry seasons.” 

For other farmers, rules that prohibit saving seeds from GMO crops are a big concern, as is accidental cross-pollination for their non-GMO crops. Iga Zinunula Sam, a farmer, worries that if GMO cultivation is allowed in Uganda, the issue of cross-contamination will inevitably occur. And eventually all farmers like him “will end up in a situation of economic bondage, where every farmer will have GMOs in Uganda whether they want it or not, creating a situation where we would have to depend on corporations for seeds.”

Having to pay for seeds every planting season is challenging for many Ugandan farmers, says Ayebare Prudence Aijuka, the policy research manager at Uganda National Farmers Federation. “What we need is good technology to combat our challenges such as pests and diseases. We need as many options as possible for better yields, but we also don’t want to be trapped in what will destroy our food sovereignty,” she says.

For Nalwoga, better alternatives are welcome, she says, provided farmers like her be given the freedom to grow “whichever seed they want [to], without being inclined to one product.”

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.

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