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Ignorance, misinformation and politics blamed for slow adoption of GMOs in East Africa

Today, Uganda has at least 17 approved field research trials using a variety of GM crops, but researchers are unable to conduct product testing on farmers’ fields because of lack of a national biosafety legislation and regulation.

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Even as East Africa is currently grappling with food insecurity, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – which have been touted to present immense possibilities for improving the region’s nutrition and food security – are largely resisted due to ignorance, misinformation and politics, according to a new study.

GMOs are organisms such as microorganisms, animals or plants whose DNA is altered in a way that is distinct from natural recombination.

In Africa, at least nine countries have recently conducted GMO field trials – including Malawi, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya – but only four of them (Egypt, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and South Africa) have fully commercialised GMOs before.

Perhaps this explains why, despite sub-Saharan Africa boasting at least 25 per cent of the world’s arable land, the region produces only 10 per cent of the world’s agricultural output.

“The regulatory system and evaluation policy for GM crops in these nations may have low technical capacity in assessing the risk of GM products, which could be one explanation for the delay in the acceptance of GM crops in Africa.

“However, if confusion and false information are eliminated by proper education, as it has been shown in other nations, it might be possible for GM products to be accepted more readily in Tanzania, Uganda, and other African countries,” says a new study by Gideon Sadikiel Mmbando, a researcher at Tanzania’s University of Dodoma.

The peer-reviewed study, which is titled The legal aspect of the current use of genetically modified organisms in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, was recently published in the journal Taylor and Francis. Mr Mmbando conducted his research in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The other East African Community member states, particularly Burundi and Rwanda, were not part of the research because they primarily rely on conventional and traditional approaches, Mr Mmbando said.

In East Africa, only Kenya has made some progress with GMOs. The government has recently allowed the importation Genotype by Trait Interaction (Gt) maize to combat the food insecurity that has ravaged the country in the past few years due to recurring, prolonged dry seasons – and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton has now been commercialised.

The move, according to the study, has caused confusion among other East African citizens, especially in Tanzania and Uganda where official use and importation of GMOs have been banned.

It’s possible that Kenya is moving towards this direction because, according to the government’s “Vision 2030”, the country intends to use the agricultural sector as a key engine for economic growth to achieve middle-income status – with projected annual growth of about 10 per cent.

The study also attributes Kenya’s move to the country’s National Biosafety Authority board’s appropriate training in the regulatory process for GMOs and their results.

However, “there are still drawbacks to the commercialization process, including a lack of sufficient monitoring data for Bt cotton and difficulty obtaining credit to buy Bt cotton seeds. Kenyans have a negative perception of GMOs as a result of the negative press and publicity surrounding GM products,” says the study.

In Uganda, even though genetically modified bananas showed in 2011 that they could reduce poverty, the Ugandan government has since 2012 failed to reach a consensus on a law allowing the use of GMOs. And yet, according to the study, GMOs research and performance in Africa were expected to be led by Uganda.

It’s even worse in Tanzania, where GM crops have been a contentious topic for more than three decades, with several factors at play, which explains why the country lags behind Uganda and Kenya in terms of research on GMOs. In 2017, for instance, the country conducted research trials on GMOs, but the government announced the end of research because, according to the study, the ministry of agriculture wanted to protect Tanzania’s genetic resources and native seeds.

“This may be because individual perceptions in Tanzania are influenced by a variety of factors, including educational attainment, religion, age, occupation, rudimentary familiarity with science and technology, and marital status,” the study says, adding that Tanzania is now permitting biotechnological research trials only for academic purposes.  

In Uganda, it’s politics at play

But unlike Tanzania, the Ugandan government has provided the research infrastructure for expanding biotechnology research innovation and support to strengthen human resources, the study says, and about 10 research laboratories for biotechnology research and development have been set up, but politics has hindered progress.

Even though in 2018 the country’s parliament introduced the GE regulatory bill to be amended into an act to guarantee a comprehensive biosafety regulatory framework, President Museveni never signed the bill into law despite expressing interest and support for it. Instead, Parliament just passed a law outlawing GMOs.

“The majority of the parliamentarians think that GMOs are not beneficial to Africa, that those pushing for their acceptance are only doing so for their reasons, that they could be harmful to biodiversity and even contaminate our organic food,” the study says.

Today, Uganda has at least 17 approved field research trials using a variety of GM crops, but researchers are unable to conduct product testing on farmers’ fields because of lack of a national biosafety legislation and regulation.

Uganda’s parliamentarians argued that GMOs pose negative effects to the environment, but the study maintains that this could be a result of ignorance regarding biotechnology and biosafety, conjecture and caution, among other factors.

Mr Mmbando asserts that on the contrary, GM technology actually increases native crops’ resistance to a variety of environmental factors such as salinity, pests, diseases and drought.

“The experience Uganda has had with GM technologies seems to be more political than technical. African nations should learn to delegate authority over scientific matters to professionals in those fields, not to politicians. This will allow the government to make decisions that are appropriate for its citizens based on their thorough understanding of the subject,” the researcher says.

He concludes: “The disparities in how these nations view GM crops may be the result of expert ignorance, media hype, and exaggerated health risks, all of which raise the possibility of confusion and misinformation similar to that which has already been reported in other nations.”

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