The GMO Debate: Let Africa speak for Herself

Patricia Nanteza

November 24, 2015

This past week we were in New York City for the hard launch of the Alliance for Science. The event showcased the stories of the recently graduated Global Leadership Fellows, a group of 25 people from 10 countries who believe science should have a say in policy-making. As one of the organizers (a young white lady) tried to book for me a room in a hotel, the receptionist asked what my last name is without looking at me. As she typed, she proceeded to ask the white lady a question that threw me off balance. “What is her first name?” she said. I was mortified to say the least, but I composed myself fast enough to tell her, ever so politely, “I am here, please ask me what my name is!” She muttered a silent “I am sorry” and continued with her typing. At this point I was seething with anger, but the Good Book has always cautioned, “It’s only a fool who shows off their anger,” so I walked away, throwing my lanky body in a chair as I retreated into my mind  my safest place.

This experience in the hotel took me to a recent article published in the Huffington Post, “Squash pots and bad bananas”: The cultural myopia of American food activists, where the writers, Amy Levy and Julie Kelly, were ticked off by the director of Moms Across America, an anti-GMO activist. This activist mom, Zen Honeycutt, is quoted to have said, I got to speak to Erostus Nsubuga, chairman of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium. His main defense was not that GMOs and related chemicals are safe, but they have been trying for 20 years to grow bananas naturally and they have not been successful, implying that they need GMOs. He never indicated that Uganda might be a better place to grow other types of crops besides bananas.

This is why I take offense when someone else elects themselves or is elected by another, as in my case above, to speak on behalf of another human being they will get the story wrong, intentionally or otherwise. Honeycutt clearly has no idea that Uganda has been growing bananas for over 300 years, and we have been doing so naturally. She has no idea what bananas mean to us as a country (we have over 30 varieties for cooking, roasting, and eating as desert), and therefore she has the audacity to suggest, to a Ugandan, that we should grow something else, instead of trying to save our staple food crop using available tools such as genetic engineering.

Another ant-GMO activist, Michael Pollan, is quoted to have suggested that we should grow squash and greens around our houses and fields. What the hell is squash? Is that something that I can feed my family on and even have some extra to sell for my children’s school fees? Is that squash thing a perennial crop and is it as food secure as bananas (matooke)? Can a farmer use squash peels as feed for her pigs or cows? I doubt squash can do all the things matooke does for Uganda without forgetting the incredible source of starch and potassium that bananas are. Heck! Can squash make delicious breakfast katogo with cow offals? Or will Pollan tell us to forget katogo and start having burgers for breakfast? I work for the National Agricultural Research Organization’s Banana Research Institute in Uganda: If bacterial wilt clears all the banana plantations in the country, I can see some American anti-GMO activist advise us to find other jobs or, better still, start a National Squash Research Institute!

But I don t just have a bone to pick with only the anti-GMO activists. I also have issue with the pro-GMO activists who mean well in speaking up for us. The writers wrote some truths and made some emotional appeals for the crop by bringing up issues of famine, children dying from malnutrition and empty stomachs. And they are right: 38 percent of children under 5 in Uganda are vitamin A deficient; that is why NARO and other partners are bio-fortifying our beloved bananas with vitamin A using genetic engineering. However, it is on record that regions that grow bananas are more food secure than others. If nothing is done to save the banana, food secure regions of Uganda will start experiencing famine. I appreciate when other people speak up for us, but they tend to do it from a skewed point of view and usually pity.

Africa and Uganda in particular can speak up for herself. Our leaders have the ability to listen to and understand the science of genetic engineering and its benefits to African farmers and families, and to ultimately make the right policy decisions. We do not need America to tell us that GMOs are good or Europe forcing us to ban them. All the GE research being undertaken in Uganda on bananas has over 95 precent Ugandan scientists doing the everyday work from laboratories based in Kawanda. The other 5 percent are partners in Australia and USA.

Whichever way you look at it, genetic engineering is either being forced on us or we are being forced to reject it. Just like the receptionist at the New York hotel I started by telling you about, the anti and pro-GMO activists are looking past Africa and asking a white man or woman, “Does Africa need genetic engineering or not?” I want to tell the world as politely as I can, just like I told that lady, “I am right here, please ask me!”

So, I will speak up as an African from Uganda, whose family has grown bananas for over 10 generations, and who is employed by the National Banana Research Institute: I am not anti or pro-genetic engineering. I am for the banana. If conventional or genetic engineering methods will save it, please bring it on. I am for anything that will save our matooke. What do other Ugandans/Africans have to say?

Patricia Nanteza is a 2015 Global Leadership Fellow.