By Dr. Majwala Meaud Major
As Parliament debates the Bio-safety and Biotechnology Bill, we need an all embracing consultation approach for different stakeholders, serious research and a consensus methodology in taking a decision of such paramount importance to all Ugandans.
This should be followed by capacity building and knowledge enhancement to ensure full participation and involvement of key stakeholders especially farmers.
Technology in case of agriculture can be regarded as a factor of production that uses advance in science backed by research and development with new innovations and inventions to make complex farming systems possible, quicker and more productive.
With practical assessment of the socio-economic features (effects) of biotechnology, it is difficult to generalise about its advancement because each situation (set of circumstances) where it is employed is different; however, its overwhelming social features are change and integration.
With regard to change, the price of biotechnology exacts for the progress it brings is that farmers (the principle stakeholders) must change their mind-set, methodologies and strategic interests to adopt it.
The biotechnology revolution produces, perhaps with a time lag, an associated socio-economic revolution in relation to the use of valuable resources like land, personnel, finance and time. Biotechnology is moving so fast that it is creating problems long before Africa farmers are able to develop solutions.
Our Research and Development Strategy need to be goal-directed and should focus on the diversification and intensification of land use, soil fertility replenishment, wise use and sustainable management of natural resources, biological diversity conservation and effective agricultural marketing.
It also entails policy improvements, capacity and institutional strengthening through information sharing and knowledge enhancement to facilitate farmers to adopt proven/sustainable farming systems on a large scale.
On the other hand, the face of biotechnology acknowledges that agriculture is bound to go for more (high) value-added products rather than high productivity products. Many researchers in this area are optimistic that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture can be complementary, if we start from the (right agronomic) problem, not from a set of techniques that we must apply.
The plain argument that is that what is pushed by advocates of biotechnology is the development of resistance to pesticides in industrially produced seed stocks- enabling industry to sell their seed stocks, fertilizers and pesticides as integrated package solutions to farmers.
Another package is called ‘’industrial foods’’, industrially produced replacements of agricultural crops which were previously imported from Africa to Europe and America- the reverse may be true that African farmers are yet to become economically more dependant to western countries and ecologically more vulnerable.
Improvement from the corporate view point of western agricultural research is often a loss for the poor farmers in the developing world who often lack government subsidies, technical knowhow (expertise), enough land for extensive commercial farming, fertilizers, capital/technology and other supporting resources.
Again for agricultural biotechnology, there is a debate on ethics that has been focused upon domesticated animals; as sentient beings, their treatment suggests emotive analogies with people.
Some skeptics have anticipated GMOs running out of control which might cause unintended harm to the sustainable productivity of land resources or even cause an ecological imbalance that can take agriculture down a misguided route.
That is, it develops single-gene solutions for problems which drive from a monoculture farming system, designed on industrial models of efficiency which African farmers are yet to experience. For environmentalists, GMOs are virtually self-reproducing pollutants, in several senses.
Culturally speaking, GMOs are genes out of place, an ominous ‘reconstruction of nature’. Agronomically speaking, GMOs may weaken crop varieties in ways which would require yet more corrective high-tech intervention and more capital investments that may accompany the process.
Environmentally speaking, they may run out of control, threatening an inherently fragile eco-balance of land and its biological diversity.
There is, therefore, a need for a regulatory framework specifically for GMO releases in line with socio-environmental ethics of African farmers in order to check the irreversible effects, applying the principle of preventive action.
It should be more than merely preventive but precautionary, so as to anticipate benefits, risks and hazards from GMOs, prior to any consensual cause-effect mechanism for identifying potential harm.
The writer is the president of Sustainable World Initiative-East Africa.