GM is one of the hugest tests of our time. Yet this is only about “time” – say YES and you are in. Say NO and stay on the waiting list. Fortunately the GM bus will not stop doing the rounds. When you finally make up your mind you board – but be reminded that “for latecomers, the bones.”
Through GM, scientists transfer or modify genes – which are building blocks of any living organism such as a plant or animal, so as to make useful products.
Biotechnology, as defined by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.” The main focus of this article is agricultural biotechnology.
My first encounter with this subject was 10 years ago when, on top of reading from the GM lobby and the anti GM groups, I interviewed Peter Chase who then was the US Department of State’s special negotiator for biotechnology.
A young environment reporter then, I was, like many others in the civil society, suspicious of the US intentions in promoting GM. There were fears of the impact of GM on human health, the environment, and seed dependence. It was argued that companies like Monsanto would monopolize the seed industry and make poor farmers dependent on bought seed – in essence the multinationals would be in control of global agriculture.
While the European Union (EU), the chief campaigner against GM, would in 2010 publish that it had found no environmental or health problems with GM, I had learned from Chase that although multinationals were investing in research and development in this area, for profits, biotechnology was not their monopoly. This is a “technology” that humans around the world can explore in the face of agricultural challenges including pests, diseases, droughts and inferior yields. The multinationals have no ownership over the technology. They have rights to what they produce with the technology and if you don’t want them in your country you can stop them.
The Ugandan Parliament has been presented with the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012. This, if passed, will regulate the use and management of GM in Uganda. Again, GM is getting the stick, especially through the media, on the same arguments previously stated. Many journalists, perhaps in their quest to “balance the story” have continued to quote people with no substantial knowledge about GM, effectively misleading some sections of the public.
It is only prudent for us to support the regulation of GM and invest in our scientists to enable them develop essential bio products which we too can patent and sell to others. It is important to separate the technology from the GM products developed by multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta or Dupont.
Instead of burying our heads in the sand, or behaving like goats which drag their feet while they are being taken to graze, let us open our minds and think of the best ways to benefit from this technology.
Confined trials of GM bananas are on at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) in Kawanda and imagine what difference it will make when they develop varieties that are resistant to banana bacterial wilt disease. This is a disease, for example, that has wiped out entire plantations of Matooke, a major staple in Central and Western Uganda.
There are GM trials for rice, maize, potatoes and cotton at different research centres in Uganda. The aim is to produce varieties that are more nutritious, drought-tolerant and resistant to pests and diseases.
Trends show that since 1996 when GM was commercialized in the US the adoption of the technology has only been growing because people see the benefits.
Last year developing countries even surpassed developed countries in growing GM crops. The Global Status of Commercialized Biotechnology/GM 2012 report indicates that developing countries had a share of 52%.
Globally, over 170m hectares of GM were grown in 2012, an increase of 6% from the previous year. By 1997 GM only covered less than 20m hectares.
While Uganda still debates whether to regulate GM, South Africa, which exports agricultural produce into Uganda through its supermarkets, is number five among the top five growers of GM in the developing world. China, India, Brazil and Agentina lead respectively.
The anti GM group is not only fighting a losing battle but also delaying Uganda’s opportunities to reap from this technology. The battle was won 30 years ago when science tested the technology and found it working. When something is good you can’t stop people from using it. The farmer continuing to use hybrid seed today has been convinced by the yields – nothing else. Many technologies have been questioned and in the end we have found ourselves basking in them.
When mobile phones were introduced we claimed they caused cancer and impotence. Now some people carry on them more than two sets.
Sir Prof. Robert Edward’s In vitro fertilization (IVF) first baby Louise Brown was a controversial entrant into our world in 1978. Over five million babies worldwide have since been produced with IVF. Edwards died on April 10, 2013, and it does not seem he has ever been part of a controversial history – not many even noticed his passing.
For GM, like Sir Prof. Brian Heap, the Programme leader of Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA) said recently: “Those who will be around 20 years from now will look back and ask themselves ‘what was all the fuss about?'”
Uganda and Africa in general missed the “green revolution” which occurred between the 1940s and 1970s and transformed several economies including Mexico, India and the Philippines through improved agriculture. As we listen to GM critics, another opportunity is passing under our armpits. South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Sudan are already growing GM crops. When we finally open our eyes we shall understand why we have always been among the last – Fear!
The writer is the Chairman, Uganda Science Journalists Association (USJA)