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January 12, 2011

Uganda is ready for genetically modified foods

by Charles Mugoya and Clet Wandui Masiga*

In recent days, a number of negative opinions have been raised in the Ugandan media concerning Genetically Modified Organisms trials in Uganda. Most of the opinions are not informed by the vast knowledge available from biology and genetics and crop breeding.

The critics have deliberately and selectively picked up erroneous and biased bits and pieces of knowledge about GMO’s from the web and media and they are using them to mislead the general public. It is important to correct the perception that GMO’s have been resisted in Europe and North America.

To the contrary, developments in GMO’s for crop production, pharmaceutical purposes and other novel industrial products are in full throttle in those continents. It is no wonder that many GMO crops are being cultivated on commercial basis in those regions. In Africa - South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Egypt have taken the lead in growing GMO crops on a commercial scale and they are reaping big.

We also wish to dismiss the notion that Uganda is blessed with superior crop types that do not need improvement. But the prized crops never originated from Uganda. Our matooke originated from Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea; maize from Mexico and Central America; and rice from China, India and West Africa.

Interestingly, all these countries are now growing GMOs.

Second, it is also vital to realise that the conventional breeding technologies that helped breeders of the 20th Century to generate high yielding, pest and disease-resistant crop varieties (not organic) are no longer practical and competitive. Biotechnology has now greatly added value to conventional breeding in ways that have revolutionised crop and animal improvement. Biotechnology is now a must in all teaching curricula for crop/animal improvement worldwide.

Critics have also argued that transgenic crops are a sinister plot by multinational seed companies to enslave Africa to rely on them for seed supply. We dismiss this argument as propaganda because no private seed company was involved in the initial GMO research and discovery and multinational seed companies existed before the GMO seed revolution. Furthermore, Monsanto cannot make enough profits in seed trade from Uganda or the East African region.

Using maize as an example, the crop is cultivated on more than 132 million hectares worldwide with an annual yield estimated at 500 million tons, yet the East and Central Africa (ECA) region collectively grows only 7.2 million tonnes of maize on approximately 5.5 million hectares representing 1.4 per cent of the world total.

A quick glance at the figures will tell you that we in Uganda need Monsanto more than it needs us. Indeed companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience, Ceres, Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer are held in high esteem in developed countries due to their contribution to health, food security, employment and sustaining economies of these nations.

Lastly, scientists in East Africa are developing GMO crops in partnerships with other scientists, including those in private laboratories/companies like Monsanto. The drought-tolerant GMO maize, if successful, will increase maize production from the current 7.2 million tons in ECA to 12 million - representing 70 per cent increase in maize production in the region. As scientists, we will not sit and watch the effects of climate change, drought, pests and diseases deny our people food.

*Dr Mugoya, a bioscientist, works with the Agro-biodiversity and Biotechnology Programme of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa. The article was co-authored by Clet Wandui Masiga of the same organisation

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