To plant or not to plant? – The debate over GM seeds

To plant or not to plant? - The debate over GM seeds

The current debate about the use of genetically-modified seeds in Uganda might determine Africa’s agricultural future.

John Ssembajjwe, a long-time maize farmer in the Wakiso and Masaka districts, walks around his two-acre farm in Sissa and recalls the time he almost broke down in tears after his crop was scorched by the sun.

“I do farming in different districts of Uganda where I have land, but my major problem is that the rain seasons are no longer reliable. Two years ago I lost all crops on my farm in Masaka due to extended drought,” he recalled.

Even as Ssembajjwe’s maize crops failed, starvation caused by extended drought wracked portions of Eastern Uganda. Maize, the most widely grown staple food in Africa – feeding close to 300 million – is badly affected by drought. Unlike some farmers with the capacity to irrigate their crops during drought, Ssembajjwe is one of the many African farmers that cannot afford irrigation, hence relying on the natural weather conditions.

But now, Ssembajjwe is excited by a proposal by the American multinational company, Monsanto, to introduce drought-resistant GM (Genetically Modified) maize tests to Uganda. These new GM strains of maize are predicted to be resistant to pests and drought, increasing yields by 24 to 35 per cent.

While Ssembajjwe anticipates the new breed of maize, there is considerable opposition among some farmers and activists to the Monsanto proposal. While almost all critics of Monsanto agree that GM technology has the potential to benefit the average African farmer, the policies of Monsanto might not necessarily allow those benefits to occur.

The problem is that GM strains of maize can be patented and are infertile. Potentially, each year, farmers would have to pay exorbitant amounts for seeds. Local farmers who could not afford the seeds might not be able to compete with larger farming conglomerates that have ready cash for the GM seeds. Plus there is the threat that the seeds, some of which become fertile, could pollinate indigenous plants in neighbouring fields, forever changing those strains.

Even more alarming, because certain strains of GM maize can be patented, any farmer who grew a GM strain without permission, could be subject to legal prosecution. In Canada, for instance, Monsanto sued and won a case against a farmer whose field was accidently cross-pollinated with a GM strain. Critics of Monsanto fear the same thing could happen in Uganda.

However, representatives of Monsanto, who have teamed up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in order to test the drought-resistant GM corn, insist that the case in Africa is different, even going so far as to promise “no royalty fees” for farmers who plant the GM seeds.

What does GM mean?

As the debate heats up, much of the general public remains in the dark as to the potential benefits and drawbacks of GM crops. Dr. Andrew Kigundu, a Research Scientist in Plant Biotechnology from National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) laboratories – Kawanda said that many people are confused between traditional seed breeding techniques and the new GMO (an acronym for Genetically Modified Organs) technology.

“The term GMO in mechanisms refers to those ones that have been developed using the new science of genetic engineering,” he said.

Traditional breeding processes involve crossing different strains of plants to create hybrids. In a traditional breeding process, early maturity, for instance, allows a crop to be harvested before the dry seasons. Seed-producers look at the existing crop strains, then evaluate and select those materials that are early maturing, cross them, and give these to farmers. Genetic engineering allows a farmer to introduce these same traits and others to a crop by modifying the genetic code of a plant in a lab.

“We do not have any GMO product as food or as cash crops for farmers to grow. Many of the products on our shelves in the super markets and shops will definitely have a certain amount that is GMO,” said Kigundu.

Proposals for planting GM maize have just been approved for Uganda.

“Traditional breeding has been successful in very many ways in terms delivering varieties that offer farmers opportunities in various agricultural productivity, but it has suffered serious limitations, especially in Africa,” he added.

Monsanto or “Monsatan”

When it comes to international biotechnology, one company dominates all others: Monsanto. With an estimated value of 66 billion dollars – more than four time’s Uganda’s GDP at the official exchange rate – Monsanto has made its fortune through technical expertise and tight controls on intellectual property.

Critics say that Monsanto’s past history demonstrates that the company has always had one goal: profits. With the creation of a drought resistant strain of maize, the African farmer is just the next target in an ever expanding market. Some activists have even labeled the company as evil, calling it “Monsatan.”

The new maize trials will not be run directly by Monsanto, but will instead be conducted by a company called Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation, which receives its funding from Monsanto – and notably, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The presence of the world’s largest philanthropic foundation doesn’t appease critics like Dr. Opiyo Oloya, who published an open letter to Museveni, in which he wrote: “The plan to test GM maize in Uganda is a Monsanto project from the beginning to the end. Indeed, the Nairobi-based nonprofit African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) which made the announcement about the impending trial is a Trojan horse for Monsanto and other big bio-tech giants like Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, and DuPont.”

Opiyo points to what is known as “The Chapati Scandal” to illustrate what he feels Monsanto has in mind for Uganda. In early 2004, Monsanto was awarded American and European patent rights to India’s century-old wheat variety known as Nap Hal which is particularly suited for making the delicious chapattis that Indians have enjoyed from the beginning of time. In fact, Monsanto bought the rights to patent Nap Hal from Unilever in 1998, thereby staking its rights to having ‘invented’ part of Nap Hal.

With Monsanto in control of Nap Hal, local Indian farmers were expected to pay Monsanto for the right to grow varieties of the same seeds they had always harvested. Opiyo imagines a future in which Ugandan farmers either pay for Monsanto seeds, or lose their land to huge mega-farms that can afford the seeds and out compete the traditional Ugandan smallholder.

GMO in Uganda

Mr. Robert Anguzu, from the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), sees such stories as simple fear-mongering.

“All this debate on Monsanto and GMOs is not a new debate. The role of Monsanto here is to provide the technology of drought tolerance, donate propriety jump plants, advanced tools and expertise. But the breeding work will be done by our own scientists here,” he said.

During the trials, the current plan is for Ugandan farmers involved in the tests to be given the seeds for free or at a moderate price, rather than having to pay annual royalty fees.

But, should the maize prove successful, “There will be companies selected to commercialize those seeds at a later stage but that agreement will come at a later stage,” he added.

To some degree, it will be the government that determines the future for GM crops in Uganda. The Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) will oversee the test and seed dissemination processes, and once the seeds are determined safe, it is this body that must regulate the price and proceeds of the seeds.

Even Wilfred Kamulegeya, Monsanto’s Representative in Uganda, agrees that the government’s role is to exercise control.

It’s farmers like Ssembajjwe, on his two acre farm in Sissa, who will be most affected by the introduction of GM crops.

“I am sure I will be one of the first ones to go for that variety when proven successful for Ugandan soils, on the grounds that I do not want to suffer the losses I have suffered before,” he said.

Perhaps, with good governance, even the profit motives of a company like Monsanto can be controlled and directed for a positive outcome for Ugandan farmers. A time when Ssembajjwe’s maize can be found across the markets of Kampala, rather than a future in which Ssembajjwe finds himself at the mercy of multinational mega-farms in league with multinational bio-techs.

by Savio Kyambadde & David Torrey Peters