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January 12, 2011

Uganda doesn't need GMOs at all

by Opiyo Oloya

Dear Dr Charles Mugoya, manager of Agro-biodiversity and Biotechnology Programme, last week, you wrote an article entitled “Uganda is ready for genetically modified foods."

In the article, you wrote that those who speak against genetically modified crops (GMOs) are simply spouting “propaganda”. You wrote: “It is important to correct the perception that GMOs have been resisted in Europe and North America.”

According to you, “developments in GMOs for crop production, pharmaceutical purposes and other novel industrial products are in full throttle in those continents”. The impression your article left was that agriculture in Africa generally and Uganda specifically is backward, inferior and can only be saved by GMO technology from the West. To your way of thinking, biotech companies like Monsanto are saviours riding on shining white horses to the rescue. In your own words, the people of Uganda “need Monsanto more than it needs us”.

Simply, your article was fanciful fiction with little facts to support your contention. Let us start with your first fiction, namely, that genetically modified foods are wholly embraced in Europe and North America. Here are the facts which anyone can verify.

Some genetically modified crops including canola, beet and maize are cultivated in North America. The cultivation of GMO maize, the crop you spoke so highly about in your article, is generally banned in the European Union. This ban includes two GMO maize varieties created by Monsanto known as NK603, which is tolerant to Monsanto’s Roundup Glyphosate weed-killer, and MON 810.

In September 2010, an Italian court imposed a hefty fine of 25,000 euro on a farmer from the north-eastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia for illegally growing MON 810 maize and contaminating nearby fields. Furthermore, Dr. Mugoya, your article ignores the persistent global public fear of long-term effects of GMO food on health. These fears have been reinforced by cases where GMO foods and food supplements were implicated in deaths and illnesses of consumers.

Indeed, consumer resistance to GMO foods is so intense in the West that attempts by Monsanto and other bio-tech companies to introduce GMO crops like wheat have been rejected by farmers.

More importantly, big GMO companies like Monsanto spend millions fighting off attempts by governments to label their foods as genetically modified. Now, if GMO foods are so good, healthy and widely accepted, can you as an educated man, tell me why their producers do not want them to be called what they are? A snake by any other name is still a snake.

You also wrote: “We also wish to dismiss the notion that Uganda is blessed with superior crop types that do not need improvement.” Now, it is not a notion that the natural seeds Uganda farmers currently farm are superior. They are, in fact, superior to any bio-tech GMO variety for several reasons. Foremost, whether they originated from Mexico or Malaysia, these organic crops have evolved over hundreds of years, either naturally or through careful breeding. They have been proven to be safe for human consumption.

Secondly, as a scientist you know better than to generalise how a particular crop might do in a different soil type and climate. The crops that Uganda farmers currently plant are superior precisely because they have adapted well to their environments. Indeed, in all his public appearances in North America that I have attended, President Yoweri Museveni consistently extolled the goodness of Uganda’s food products—mangoes, pineapple, banana, tomatoes, name it. I would predict that within the decade, Museveni’s dream of selling these organic food products worth millions of dollars to European and North American markets will become a reality. But that will largely depend on Uganda staying away from the murky, chemically laden and genetically modified food farming practices of industrialised countries.

Meanwhile, here is another one of your fictions. You wrote: “Furthermore, Monsanto cannot make enough profits in seed trade from Uganda or the East African region.” Sir, on this one, you are simply dead wrong. Monsanto’s business model is very simple. Get into a country, corner farmers into buying GMO seeds year after year by forbidding them from saving seeds for planting next season, while selling them plenty of Roundup weed killer and make unimaginable profits for the shareholders in America. Do your homework on this one and tell me if you find different. Your final fiction was that Monsanto and other biotech companies are held “in high esteem in developed countries due to their contribution to health, food security, employment and sustaining economies of these nations. Where did you get that information from?

What you need is another perspective, and may I suggest you watch two documentaries, Food Inc. (2008) by Robert Kenner and The World according to Monsanto (2008) by Marie-Monique Robin. I have couriered several original copies of both documentaries to Uganda and will make them available to you and television producers willing to screen them for Ugandans. Once you have viewed those two documentaries, I am not certain that you can make a bold statement that bio-tech companies and Monsanto specifically are well respected. They are profitable and rich, maybe, but not well respected.

In conclusion, Dr. Mugoya, the issue is not whether Uganda is ready for GMO foods, but whether it needs GMO foods at all. The hundreds who have signed and continue to sign the petition ( to protect Uganda’s naturally organic harvests (NOAH) have all made this point very clear—Keep Monsanto’s GMO maize away from Uganda.

For my part, having benefited from publicly funded education in Uganda, I intend to fully pay my debt by using all resources to help educate my country on important issues that may affect their wellbeing.

We may be poor, but we are not stupid.

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