Underneath the busy, green exterior it doesn't take long to discover that this is a country that faces serious environmental and agricultural challenges
By Mark Lynas
Every time I visit Uganda, I am struck by what a vibrant, lively country it is, and how blessed with abundant natural resources, including Lake Victoria, full of fish and surrounded by lush green vegetation.
Unfortunately, politics has got in the way of efforts to protect the nation’s fragile ecosystem through more effective agricultural practices. Though Uganda's scientists, working with international partners, have now developed better staple crops, their hands have been tied by the success of an anti-GMO fear-mongering campaign run by the powerful Non-Government Organisation (NGO) lobby in Kampala.
Several promising innovations have been caught in the political logjam. Uganda's staple food is matoke, a steamed mash made from green bananas and prepared fresh each day. However, the backyard banana plantations that are ubiquitous across the countryside have been devastated by an outbreak of bacterial wilt.
Bananas resistant to bacterial wilt have been shown to be highly effective in field trials and could provide part of the answer. Similarly, cassava — another staple crop, especially important in drought-prone, food insecure regions — has been affected by virus attacks. Scientists have also developed virus-resistant strains of cassava.
On my most recent trip I visited the latest field trials of maize, at the Namulonge headquarters of NaCRRI, the National Crops Resources Research Institute. This maize is part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) programme, which aims at addressing two problems at once.
To start with, Uganda is drought-prone, and maize is a thirsty crop. WEMA maize is drought-tolerant, making it part of the climate resilient agriculture the country desperately needs to adapt to global warming.
WEMA maize is also insect-resistant too. Originally bred to defeat the corn borer pest, it also offers good protection against the fall armyworm, which has recently been spreading like a plague across African farms. This inherent genetic resistance is an alternative to the toxic pesticides that are otherwise, the only way to combat fall armyworm.
It looked highly impressive to me, with the genetically engineered maize in much better condition than the conventional control, which was smaller and less productive, its leaves pocked with insect damage.
Not surprisingly, farmers I spoke to were eager to get their hands on seeds. "It is my prayer that GM maize will be released soon," local farmer leader Monica Lule said as we both inspected the field trial.
However, WEMA maize and the disease-resistant cassava, banana and potato crops will stay behind fences for the foreseeable future, because Uganda's political situation has become more anti-science due to pressure from activist groups based in the capital.
These NGOs have fought long and hard to block these improved crops, spreading utterly false scary stories that “GMOs cause cancer and infertility,”' and persuading politicians — including the country's president — that better crops will somehow magically threaten or eliminate traditional and indigenous varieties.
Although the scientists have done their best to explain that disease resistant bananas are the same as traditional ones — except that they don't die from diseases — these scare stories have emotional resonance with the general public and media, and therefore generate outsize political impact.
The most recent indication of this was in December 2017, when the president refused to sign a biosafety bill passed by parliament that was intended to facilitate the responsible development and introduction of genetically modified crops.
The bill has since been amended under severe backroom pressure from the anti-biotech lobby, and now contains clauses that are so extreme — such as 10 years in jail for scientists committing minor infractions — that it threatens to criminalize legitimate scientific research.
Those who were originally pushing for the bill are questioning whether it is now worth passing at all, or whether it will more likely make a bad situation even worse.
In the meantime, climate change accelerates and fall armyworm continues its lethal spread through Uganda's farmland. The deteriorating political situation is already having predictable knock-on effects with food insecurity, environmental destruction and higher use of chemicals.
Uganda is a country with much promise, but banning science and innovation is surely not the way to make the most of it.
The writer is an environmental activist and visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science