by Ilya Gridneff – The Global Mail

Miranda Grant for The Global Mail - Alice Kulabigwo tending her crops in Luwero

Miranda Grant for The Global Mail – Alice Kulabigwo tending her crops in Luwero

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GM for Uganda

The midday sun is searing over Alice Kulabigwo’s farm in Luwero, north of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, as she inspects the blackened stem of one of her banana plants. It’s infected with Black Sigatoka, a major scourge for Ugandan farmers. Nearby, her cassava plants are also frequently destroyed by “brown streak”, an insidious disease which turns the starchy root vegetable into a putrefied soggy brown mess.

A retired teacher, Kulabigwo, like eight out of 10 Ugandans, has also farmed part-time for years to help make ends meet. Now she tends fulltime to a 10-hectare plot at her ancestral home, growing cassava, beans, pumpkin, a few pawpaw trees, and Uganda’s staple food, the banana.

Kulabigwo also knows all about the devastating Banana Xanthomonas Wilt that rapidly kills entire banana plants and ruins the soil around them. In some areas of the country wilt and Black Sigatoka have forced almost every farmer to destroy their banana crops. Brown streak afflicts 60-70 per cent of Uganda’s cassava growers, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

For Uganda, the world’s largest consumer of bananas and the second largest banana producer, these diseases are economically devastating. Uganda loses five per cent of its GDP to malnutrition and hunger according to a recent government study. At the same time, the country depends on agriculture for a quarter of its GDP.

“There are very many people who don’t have [food],” says Kulabigwo. “Some people are hungry, are starving.”

Depending on whom you speak to, this may all soon change, with Uganda poised to open its borders to genetically modified organisms (GMO). A series of trials of genetically modified (GM) crops specifically engineered to be resistant to wilt, brown streak and a host of diseases that are blighting Uganda’s crops has yielded promising results. Proponents say GMO would take Uganda’s subsistence farming to a viable commercial level, while also feeding the local population.

But there are also opponents of GMO, eager to warn farmers of rapacious multinationals which they say will not hesitate to patent seeds, jack up prices, and lay waste to the country’s biodiversity and subsistence-farming culture. Still others regard the push for deregulation of GMO as a neo-colonial conspiracy that connects the White House to this billion-dollar multinational corporate greed.

In Luwero, Kulabigwo admits she does not know whether GMOs are good or bad.

“I think it’s God’s plan. I cannot express myself on this [GMO],” she says driving a hoe into the ground at the base of a cassava plant.

She stops her work and looks up. “You tell me. Is it good?”

The Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, which would set the legal framework for Ugandan farmers to buy GM seeds and plants, and to export GM produce, has been in approval limbo since 2003. Some say that this is just how long things can take in Africa, where the passage of legislation is frequently stalled by cabinet reshuffles, elections, MPs fearing backlash from their constituents, the prioritising of other bills or the lack of education about GMO among both the public and MPs.

Progress seemed to have been made in recent months. Scientists at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) told The Global Mail that GM seeds and foods, such as a vitamin-A-enriched banana or disease-resistant cotton may be available in Uganda as early as mid-2014. A second reading of the bill has long been scheduled for September. If it passes, the bill will go to a vote at a third reading, then to President Yoweri Museveni to be signed off and made into law.

Early this month, however, reading of the bill was once again delayed with the release of a full parliamentary schedule. And Museveni’s recent hiring of prominent anti-GMO advisor Morrison Rwakakamba as a Special Presidential Assistant has sent mixed messages to all interested parties, including parliament and the public.

Meanwhile, a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that delaying the approval for planting GM bananas potentially costs Uganda between US$179 million and US$365 million a year.

The uncertainty has been enough to exhaust, at least temporarily, the patience of agritech-industry Goliath, Monsanto. In 2009 and 2010, the company began well-publicised trials of several strains of GM cotton, ready for use with the company’s own pesticide, Roundup.

Monsanto’s former country representative Wilfred Kamulegeya says the trial was halted when it stopped funding the partnership with Uganda’s NARO.

“The trial would most likely restart when the bill passes,” he says.

The World Bank’s Millennium Science Initiative, launched in 2006, also had invested in the development of GM technology in Uganda, providing $US33 million over six years to Ugandan universities and research institutions, to enable them to pursue agricultural biotechnology schemes. But this became an example of how difficult it can be to drive a project to completion in Uganda, when the program, which was jointly funded by the Ugandan government, was cut without warning in the 2012 budget.

Deputy Agriculture Minister and science and technology advisor to the President, Mijumbi Nyiira, told The Global Mail that the government is committed to GMO, but that advocates for the technology must be patient.

“It may be frustrating for the scientists, but if they are true Ugandans and patriotic, they should also be realistic. We are not passing the bill because they are frustrated. We should pass the bill because it is in the interest of the people,” he says.

Despite interruptions to funding, research into the benefits of GM crops for Uganda continues with several ongoing trials. Ugandan scientist Enoch Kikulwe, now based at Goettingen University in Germany, believes using GMO for Uganda’s banana production will alleviate poverty, and contribute to overall sustainable social and economic development.

In an ongoing trial, launched in 2010, National BioResource Project (NBRP) scientists have used protein from two sweet pepper genes to create a banana resistant to wilt. But Kikulwe cautions against over-optimism about the results of contained, small-scale trials.

“Although GM bananas look promising for large-scale multiplication and dissemination, empirical evidence of the success of such organisms is still limited,” he says.

Kikulwe says losses caused by banana disease make the opportunity cost to farmers of not using the GM banana technology extremely high.

His research into the feasibility of vitamin A-enriched bananas, through a GMO process of “bio-fortification” conducted by NARO, found it would be a positive step for Uganda if the scheme proved to be “cost effective”.

According to the World Health Organization, vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and weakening of the immune system, remains a public-health problem in Uganda. Anaemia (an abnormally low red-blood-cell count) is an associated problem, and vitamin-A deficiency is “unacceptably high” in children under five years of age.

Kikulwe, is positive about the trials, and underscores the potential benefits of biofortification.

“Biofortifying bananas, especially cooking banana, results in huge health benefits and has positive impacts on household well-being in both the highlands and lowlands regions of Uganda,” he says.

Uganda’s NARO is promoting such work to non-government organisations (NGOs), journalists, politicians, consumers and farmers in efforts to get the Biotechnology and Biosafety bill enacted.

At the end of July, The Global Mail attended a field trip to NARO’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NCRRI) headquarters at Namulonge, 30 kilometres north of Uganda’s capital Kampala.

Huddled onto a dented minibus we drive an hour or so and are shown the laboratories and field trials NARO says prove the benefits of introducing a GMO cassava to Ugandan farmers. Like the banana, cassava, a starchy, tasteless root in its unprocessed form, is a staple of the Ugandan diet, and the plant comes under constant attack from brown streak disease.

Surrounded by genetically modified cassava plants, grandmother of five and chairperson of the Luwero District Farmers Association, Magaret Bamukawa, is politely arguing with one of the NCCRI’s field-trial managers.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asks with a cynical look.

“I am sure,” John Odipio says, standing waist-high in the verdant field. He turns over the leaf of a non-genetically modified cassava plant to show the scores of bugs – killers known as ‘white fly’, they transmit brown streak and the African cassava mosaic virus – underneath; he then turns over another leaf, of a GM cassava plant, on which there is no white fly to be seen.

With us is British author, journalist and environmentalist Mark Lynas, who last year famously, or infamously depending on where you sit, made a landmark apology for his once “anti-science position” of opposing GMOs when he was associated with Greenpeace.

A former anti-GMO activist who destroyed GMO field tests such as the one in which we stand, Lynas is now a leading promoter of GMO.

“I think when the message gets through to Europeans that productivity does matter to small-hold farmers in Uganda then they will come around and support this agenda,” Lynas tells journalists.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is a major promoter, supporter and funder of GMO, flew Lynas to Kampala to speak at the first ever ‘National Bio-Safety Conference for Uganda’, a three-day talkfest held at the end of July at the country’s premier university, Makerere.

During the conference, Lynas urged Ugandans to support the bill: “The media in Europe, the UK and America use this term ‘Frankenstein foods’, coined 15 or so years ago, to demonise the technology from the very beginning. I think the situation is changing though. Scientists have been very slow to wake up, but they have now realised that they could lose an entire appeal for technological progress to public superstition, unless they could more successfully inform society about their work,” he says.

Bamukawa leaves convinced of the safety of GMOs.

“I first heard of it [GMO] a decade ago. After the three-day conference and the field visit to the laboratories, I am convinced GMO is not really a danger to the Uganda consumer or farmer,” she says.

But the message of Lynas and others has met with less success elsewhere. Sarah Namubiru, District Agricultural Officer for Luwero, says she regularly encounters farmers who are against GMO.

“They refer to GMO as something that is coming from outside Uganda, it is foreign and they are saying these people are always coming, they’ve always exploited us,” she says.

“For them they don’t know what a GMO is. There is no wide publicity. They hear rumours and rely on that.”

Some opponents of introducing GMO to Uganda claim that the technology will not significantly address food-security concerns. Associate Professor Matthew Schnurr, a Canada-based researcher, says that central to the debate in Uganda is an ideological feud between competing development theories on how to reduce global hunger and malnutrition.

“GMOs are a solution that fit within the view that hunger is a technical problem; that is, the best means of combating hunger is to increase yields. But data shows that the real roots of hunger are political. I’d like to see Uganda engage in a broader conversation around how best to tackle the issue of hunger that recognises these political roots,” he says.

For Dr Olupot Giregon, a senior lecturer at Makerere University’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the bill and GMO, the root of hunger in Uganda is not food supply, but corruption, poor planning and mismanagement.

“Food security is more about economics, social justice, good governance, fairness and peace. Is GMO going to solve all those problems?” he says.

Giregon points to the collapse of the textile industry in the 1970s, and the prolonged political instability that followed. Any current food crisis, he says, has more to do with a lack of infrastructure or modern techniques or poor soil quality.

“The kidnapping and rape by the Lord’s Resistance Army meant people were too scared to go into the fields,” he says. “How will GMO solve this?

Giregon is no stranger to controversy; for example, he’s known for having branded colleagues who support GMO and the bill as “bio-terrorists.” He also draws a straight line between the White House, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), companies like Monsanto and the GMO push in Uganda.

“Corporate America is the one in charge. The traditional America cannot exist without these ‘dirty deals’ [between government and big business]. They have let the corporations run the government.”

Topping the list of those opposed to GMO in Uganda is non-government organisation, The Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM), a civil-society umbrella organisation for 45 Ugandan NGOs.

PELUM’s donors come mainly from Europe, and include Oxfam, Christian group Bread for the World, and German Catholic organisation Misereor, and international aid and development agency, Caritas.

While acknowledging PELUM’s “foreign support”, its spokesman, Richard Mugisha, describes the GMO push in Uganda as “neo colonial”, a contemporary form of slavery for African farmers.

“Our concerns centre on agriculture, environment and economic degradation. GMOs will lead to perpetual enslavement of small farmers by corporations, by controlling all the seed and forcing us to buy on their terms, season upon season,” he says.

“We fear that contamination of our agriculture and seed with GMO will mean the loss of export markets to countries in Europe that have already rejected GMO foods.”

Mugisha, who earlier this year lodged a formal submission against the bill to the Parliamentary Committee of Science and Technology, says seeds patented by corporations that sell them will ultimately bring higher costs to the farmer.

Much of the macro structure for GMO research funding, promotion, and lobbying comes from outside Uganda, via a myriad of organisations, most of which were unwilling to discuss their work with The Global Mail. In fact, hostility, sensitivity and plain evasiveness, characterised our discussions with the major supporters of GMO in Uganda.

According to Schnurr, USAID is the single most important organisation supporting GMO research in Uganda. He points to one of the world’s leading programs, the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP), which was set up in 1991 as the research arm of USAID’s Collaborative Biotechnology Initiative.

Designed to promote biotechnology in Asia and East Africa, ABSP II (the second phase of the project) is a scheme run through Cornell and Michigan universities and has more than 20 partners from the private and public sectors, including USAID and Monsanto.

“ABSP II acts primarily as a liaison between NARO and Monsanto, the major technology donor for much of the GM materials used by NARO scientists,” Schnurr says.

A stated aim of USAID is to promote and integrate GMO in developing countries. The agency is also open about pursuing the interests of American corporations. It has stated: “U.S. foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world.” Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer and other leading biotech companies are headquartered in the US, where the majority of global GM food production takes place.

When The Global Mail requested an interview with USAID, both its Kampala office and Washington headquarters refused, but offered a brief statement via a spokesman:

“The end goal is to improve farmers’ income and food security status through improvements in agricultural productivity.

“USAID does not fund any NGOs to pursue GMOs in Uganda” the statement says.

However, the spokesman states that USAID does channel funding through a grant to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). In turn IFPRI “works with local partners, including public, private, and civil society entities, to advance the dialogue on biosafety”.

IFPRI manages the Uganda-based Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS) that has “partnered with local institutions and USAID-funded projects to develop biotechnology and biosafety capacity in Uganda”.

Another group promoting GMO in Uganda is the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE) that according to its website, focuses on “the demystification of biotechnology in Uganda … through communication and public engagement”.

Since 2007, SCIFODE has regularly held GMO workshops and field trips, including the NCRRI field trip and biotech conference we attended and, again according to the site, has “close linkages with parliament”.

A representative for SCIFODE, which also funded the first national biotechnology conference, would tell us only that it “did not promote [GMO] but demystified issues on GMO”.

Washington-DC-based IFPRI, in turn, says on its website that it promotes, “sustainable solutions for ending poverty and hunger”. Its donors include numerous bodies, from Pepsico, to USAID, to Yale University, to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2010 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation disclosed that it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares, which were then worth around $23 million, and these have grown in value to approximately $50 million. South Africa-based agricultural watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety also revealed that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was teaming up with agribusiness multinational Cargill, on a $10 million GMO project to “develop the soya value chain” in Mozambique.

After exchanging several emails with Amy Enright, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation communications officer, seeking an interview about the GMO legislation and information about its funding in Uganda, all she could only offer was a link to a blog post about Rwanda’s agricultural success because, she said, “I don’t have anyone immediately available.” The Foundation’s Africa director, Laurie Lee also did not respond to requests for an interview.

Pro-GMO group the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, which has been described by its chairman, and biotech entrepreneur Erostus Nsubuga, as a coalition of policymakers, scientists, private-sector leaders, government and civil-society groups, didn’t respond to emailed questions about its relationship with the Uganda National Council for Science & Technology, a government agency with which it shares an office.

The UNCST national guidelines for GMO field trials acknowledge in the 2006 and 2007 reports that they “are highly grateful to USAID Uganda Mission for providing the financial support through PBS that enabled the production of these manuals”. A UNCST report in 2011 acknowledges the PBS but with no mention of USAID.

Despite a reluctance to discuss the topic, the US government has shown itself to be unwavering in its support of bringing GMO to developing countries. WikiLeaks released US cables in 2010 that revealed prolonged lobbying of the Vatican to persuade the Pope to support GMO foods. Similar cables revealed US officials in France and Germany had urged Washington to devise penalties and retributive responses to European countries that rejected GMO.

It is a similar story in Africa: WikiLeaks revealed that the US embassy in Accra had requested $13,700 to engage a biotechnology expert to spend a week promoting GMO, “as public opinion in Ghana is divided”.

For his part, Minister Nyiira acknowledges the outside influences, but says it’s the foreign-funded NGOs that are “confusing and misleading” the debate.

“My position, and it is the position of the ministry, [is that] we are not going to sell our national interests because of other people’s interests,” says Nyirra.

Schnurr, who has been studying Uganda’s GMO debate for four years is still baffled by many aspects of it.

“It is still incredibly difficult to understand who everyone is, who is funding who, who is making the decisions, which third party or intermediary is related to which government organisation or research centre’s trial,” he says.

“There are complex layers of funding arrangements, intermediary organisations, as well as myriad formal and informal relationships connecting government, corporate capital, research scientists, development agencies and lobby groups – all enrolled in promoting and maintaining the consensus towards [allowing] GM in Uganda,” Schnurr says.

MP Robert Kafeero Ssekitoleko, vice chairman of Uganda’s Parliamentary Committee of Science and Technology, says it is not the first time external forces have competed to shape Ugandan government policy.

“In Uganda we are not self-reliant. All these government policies are supported by development partners like USAID and others. It is not specifically about this bill … they’ve been our partners for all the time.”

Ssekitoleko is scrutinising the recommendations in the bill and will be presenting them to parliament in a report that was due in September. He argues that the most important task is to remove the emotion that has hijacked the debate.

“We think they have good intentions. But if there are bad intentions we shall detect it,” he says.