By Julius Othieno
THE Genetically Modified Foods (GMO’s) have made big news lately. Lecturers and public interest groups have been actively protesting against GM foods for months, with NARO reportedly taking concrete steps towards beating any opposition.
To me, I think what Ugandans need from NARO are answers to the many public concerns on GMO’s and Parliament to pass the Food and Nutrition Bill to also carter for the GMO’s.
Some of the reasons for GMO’s include, pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance/salinity tolerance, population growth leaving less land for agriculture, nutrition since malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet.
The other reason is that medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.
The world population has topped six billion people and is still growing and expected to double in the next 50 years. Uganda’s population is now estimated at 35 million. Ensuring adequate food supply for this population is going to be a challenge in the next years to come. GM foods promise to meet this need.
Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories: Environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns. Some of the reason above does not apply for Uganda, for example, the question of land versus population; if you looked at the vast land country wide that is uncultivated yet even for the cultivated we still use traditional methods.
How much more would we be able to produce with modern agricultural practices? And yes, genetically-modified foods have the potential to solve many of the world's hunger and malnutrition problems and to help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides.
What is the case for Uganda when we are a food basket yet with only 3.5% budget allocated to Agriculture?
Ten years ago, during an African Union meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, the leaders endorsed the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa.
The most important decision therein was the commitment to allocate at least 10% of national budgets to agricultural development. Uganda, as of last budget 2013/14, committed 3.5% to Agriculture and while the budget allocation has been consistently below five per cent, the Cost of Hunger in Africa report says, it costs Uganda 5.6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or sh1.8 trillion, to costs associated with treating malnutrition, which is directly caused by inadequate access to food.
Many people feel that genetic engineering is the inevitable wave of the future and that we cannot afford to ignore; a technology that has such enormous potential benefits. There are many challenges ahead for governments like Uganda in adopting GMO’s, especially in the areas of safety testing, regulation, international policy and food labeling.
However, we must proceed with caution to avoid causing unintended harm to human health and the environment.
NARO on the other hand needs to come up with evidence that disassociates GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.
Otherwise as it stands now, most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.
Writer is the programme manager, Lunch4Learning