British environmentalist and author Mark Lynas has asked activists for and against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to peacefully coexist.
The debate on GMOs has pitted scientists and activists supportive of the biotech bill against critics, who say that GMOs are not the solution to hunger and therefore should not be allowed into Uganda. Lynas, however, believes that the two groups can peacefully coexist without anyone forcing GMO seeds onto farmers who don’t want to plant them.
“To those who are not convinced, let’s have a peaceful coexistence because having GMOs will not wipe out all the other seeds; organic seeds and GMOs can co exist. Bio tech is not the solution to every single problem but we must be pro-choice. Farmers who want traditional varieties should have their rights and those who want high yielding GMO seeds should have the right to plant them. I don’t know any pro-GMO scientist who goes out in the night and uproots organic crops,” Lynas said.
He was speaking at a recent public debate at Makerere University’s school of Food Technology, Nutrition and Bio-engineering. The Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill follows a number of local GMO trials and research over more than 10 years. Scientists manipulate plants using new technologies of molecular biology to make them produce disease-resistant seeds or plants.
Some activists say that these GMO seeds are dangerous, arguing that they pose health risks to humans and the environment. They believe that patent rights given to seed companies like Monsanto, a global company that deals in GMOs, will destroy the food sovereignty.
The bill states that ‘a person shall not engage in research or general release of GMOs without approval under the law and the penalty for a defaulter is a fine not exceeding Shs 960,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 24 months or both.’
Peasant farmers argue that plants and animals cannot be manufactured in a laboratory or patented because they are natural and should remain so. They say that GMOs place seeds at the centre of the fight for food sovereignty and will lead to loss of indigenous knowledge on seed systems and practices.
“We need to respect and retain traditional farming practices created by our ancestors. Agriculture is more about local growth, people’s livelihoods and nourishment using several types of food and not just one food,” says Dr Giregon Olupot, from the department of Agriculture.
Phinehus Tukumuhirwe, the assistant professor for plant breeding and genetics, argues that GMO plants do not produce varieties for themselves. He says that while self-pollinating crops like beans may pose no problem, crops like maize and millet may turn into something undesirable.
“We should not tamper with these crops unless you do not mind all of them becoming GMO crops,” Tukumuhirwe said.
Dr Chris Bakuneeta argues that the public needs to be educated and informed extensively on GMOs to learn what food will appear on their plates. He says peasant farmers need to know what crops will be going into their soil and what effect they will have on the land.
“While the bill will help us, it is under the influence of profit-minded scientists aimed at imposing agricultural colonialism because GMOs are not a solution to world hunger as the scientists claim. Hunger is not caused by lack of food but by lack of access to food. People have no money to buy food or land to grow food, so hunger will persist with GMOs because excess doesn’t mean access,” Bakuneeta says.
Arthur Makara, the Executive Director Science Foundation for Livelihood and Development (SCIFODE), says without technology, the country cannot progress.
“If we are to eat the local breed free-range chicken which lays about ten eggs in three months and takes about a year to mature, can we be able to sustain food security?” Makara wondered.
Lynas, a former anti-GMO campaigner, says scientists have failed to inform the world of the benefits of GMOs. He says he spent years opposing GMOs, destroyed crops in fields and organised demonstrations against Monsanto.
He thought scientists wanted to create some mutant monsters and take over the world. He believed technology was going to allow big seed companies to take over the world food supplies and prevent farmers from using their seeds by destroying them.
“The reality is GMOs produce fertile offspring. In America, people consume 2-3 trillion meals containing GMO food without a single effect or even a simple headache. I came here because the situation is now alarming.
Staple crops like cassava and bananas are at a severe threat from new diseases that could wipe them out. Scientists in Uganda and Kenya have gone a long way to develop crops which are resistant to these diseases but are attacked by activists who are against this science,” Lynas says.
He says with a looming population boom that will increase by another one billion people in the next 10 years, the future population will have nothing to eat if something is not done today.