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December 30, 2010

Uganda must not surrender her food security to Monsanto

by Opiyo Oloya

There is a popular saying in North America that goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The saying captures the sentiments of Canadian wheat farmers who successfully fought the introduction of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) wheat six years ago.

The story offers the best example why Ugandans must completely reject the seemingly sweet offer from Monsanto to start testing genetically engineered maize.

Here is the story. Wheat farming is big business in Canada’s central prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It has been that way since the early 1800s.

Over the years, generations of wheat farmers have carefully selected the best variety of wheat to plant the following year. The western red spring wheat variety, planted in the spring and harvested in August or September, is typically used to make flour, bread, cereals and crackers. Japan, USA, Mexico, Iran, Western Europe and Asia are big importers of this variety.

In time, wheat became Canada’s best agriculture export worldwide, averaging $4 billion a year in earnings. It also became the symbol of what is clean, good and healthy with food supply. This was until Monsanto began pushing its genetically engineered wheat variety known as Round-up Ready (RR) wheat. It was engineered in 1992 at the University of Florida which subsequently sold the exclusive licence to Monsanto to market to wheat farmers.

In early 2000, Monsanto began peddling GM wheat as a better variety able to withstand weed, and give better yields. GM wheat, according to Monsanto, would put more money in the pockets of wheat farmers. On July 31, 2002, Monsanto submitted application to Health Canada, the body responsible for food safety, to approve its GM wheat for human consumption. This was followed by another application on December 23, 2002 to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to allow GM wheat for general cultivation all over Canada.

But Canadian wheat farmers recognise a sleek salesman peddling snake-oil when they see one. What followed next was carefully researched and written by Dr. Emily Marie Eaton for her doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto entitled “Getting Behind the Grain: the Politics of Producer Opposition to GM Wheat on the Canadian Prairies”. Essentially, wheat farmers, environmentalists, and farmers' unions came together to reject Monsanto’s GM wheat. Speaking to Corpwatch in March 2003, the Executive Secretary for the Canadian National Farmers Union, Darrin Qualman summed up neatly what farmers were feeling. He said: “Monsanto is big, they have got billions to spend, they are a formidable opponent, but on this one they are alone. Nobody wants this, not the farmers, the processors don't want it, the foreign customers don't want it, families that are buying bread and crackers don't want it, who does want it? Monsanto."

The US, European and Japanese buyers of Canadian wheat, meanwhile, made it clear they would not buy GM wheat. Canadian wheat farming was on the brink of being wiped out because of potential market collapse due to opposition to GM wheat. In fact, Canadian farmers had a taste of such a loss in 1996 when they adopted GM canola (also peddled by Monsanto), and watched in disbelief as European markets stopped buying canola altogether.

Farmers realised they would gamble away their established wheat market by embracing Monsanto’s GM wheat. On May 22, 2003 the Canadian Wheat Board, a farmer-controlled grain marketing agency, wrote a letter to Monsanto Canada’s President, Peter Turner, asking Monsanto to withdraw its application for approval of the GM wheat altogether. On May 10, 2004, swallowing its bitter defeat hard, Monsanto pulled the GM wheat from the table. Today, the Canadian wheat industry remains a shining bright example on how to resist the sweet seduction of biotechnology and still make big money. Indeed, Uganda needs to ask two simple questions about Monsanto’s proposed testing of genetically modified maize. Why is biotech giant Monsanto pushing GM maize (I call it “juju maize”) on Uganda? Why should Uganda’s small farmers grow this variety of GM maize when the indigenous maize varieties they have are still viable, productive and good? The answers to these questions support my month-long call to reject the push for genetically modified food crops generally, and especially GM maize in Uganda.

I also call on all concerned Ugandans and global citizens to sign the ongoing online petition (http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/noah-uganda/) to protect naturally organic agriculture harvests (NOAH) in Uganda. Furthermore, Uganda’s parliament must ask the Ministry of Agriculture to rewrite The Plant Variety Protection Bill No. 2. and The Plant Protection and Health Bill No. 3. The two bills need to be consolidated into a single one spelling out the protection of indigenous agriculture crops from contamination from GM varieties. Furthermore, the new bill must also clearly say how small farmers will be compensated when their farms become contaminated by GM varieties.

If there is any lesson from Canadian wheat farmers who fought Monsanto on the introduction of GM wheat and won, it is that Uganda must never surrender food security to a corporate body like Monsanto which is motivated foremost by profits over everything else. Rather, Ugandans must start asking hard questions even of our own scientists. For example, why should we abandon NOAH and embrace GM food? “If it ain’t broke…”

New Vision

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