Ugandan scientist dismisses anti-GMO activism as bio-hegemony cult

By Peter Wamboga-Mugirya

March 5, 2018

A leading Ugandan biosafety regulator and research analyst has dismissed anti-GMO activism as a manipulation of the human mind by a cult movement committed to agricultural stagnation in vulnerable developing countries, including Uganda.

Gilbert Gumisiriza, a former biosafety officer at the state-run Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), said some Ugandans and foreigners are promoting the ill-intended campaign. “These people’s job is full-time activism against scientific work to improve crops’ productivity. They’re creating a belief system around genetic engineering to foment public dissent against a globally-tested and proven safe method of breeding our crops and foods,” said Gumisiriza, who is now a research analyst with Uganda Biosciences Information Centre (UBIC) under the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO).

He was interacting with the Youth Movement for Science and Development (YM4SD), a group of young scientists, sociologists, lawyers, farmers and politicians, during their visit to the biotech research facilities and fields at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI)-Namulonge.

Gumisiriza opined that the emergence of extremists advocating against modern agricultural biotechnology represents a very unfortunate and dangerous global trend, for. “It is unacceptable for anybody to make agricultural research an ideological or a belief system. The application of modern biotechnology to genetically improve crops is simply for resilience to pests and diseases, and to tolerate effects of drought,” he said. “It is purely a scientific breeding method.”

At NARO, Gumisiriza added, GM technology is driven by the need and mandate to save plants and crops from ferocious pests, virulent diseases and adverse climate change impacts, while improving their ability to perform in nitrogen depleted soils without the use of synthetic fertilizers. “We’re also using it to improve crops’ nutritional content, like boosting vitamin A, iron and zinc micronutrients in the staple crops via biofortification,” he said.

His concern comes against a backdrop of an increasing number of extremist anti-GMO groups pouring into Uganda and setting up local representation, mainly to fight the national biosafety bill and block farmers’ access to the GM crop technologies that NARO has developed over the years to improve agricultural productivity.

Uganda is currently Africa’s leading agricultural biotechnology research nation outside South Africa, pursuing the largest number of GM crop research projects for bananas, cassava, rice, maize, sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes.

According to officials at NARO, the Uganda Biosciences Information Council (UBIC), Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE) and the Kampala-based Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC), these anti-GMO groups have rapidly infiltrated government offices and gotten politically well-connected, with sponsorship by Europe and US-based non-governmental and faith-based organizations. They are fighting tooth and nail to prevent Uganda from adopting the GM crops developed by Ugandan scientists.

Gumisiriza said it is absurd to see groups opposing solutions thoroughly researched, approved, grown and consumed for over two decades now, especially as the world faces serious environmental and demographic challenges around food production.
In his presentation, “Modern Biotechnology Research and Development: Global State of Play and Emerging Issues,” Gumusiriza told his young guests that by 2030, due at least in part to climate change, nine out of 10 major crops will experience reduced or stunted growth rates, while average prices will rise dramatically as a result. Citing examples of the major world’s staple crops, he noted that maize will experience a 20 percent reduced or stunted growth rate, while consumers will suffer a 90 percent price increase. Rice is expected to undergo a 23 percent reduction in its growth rate, and an 89 percent price hike in five years. Wheat will see a 13 percent reduced or stunted growth rate, and a 75 percent price increase, he said, quoting a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Meanwhile, the global population is expected to rise to more than 9 billion by 2050 — with most of the growth occurring in developing countries — while the amount of arable land for agricultural production will remain constant at about 10 percent of the Earth’s surface, he said.

At the local level, Gumisiriza illustrated how Uganda holds a special position in formulation of biosafety regulations for GM products, carried out for over two decades. “In 1998, Uganda was among the first countries in the whole world to develop and pilot functional National Biosafety Frameworks (NBFs) for GM research under UNEP-GEF Pilot Enabling Activity Project,” he pointed out. In 2000, he added, Uganda was among the very first countries to sign up to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB).

Over the years, he noted, Ugandan scientists have made trailblazing discoveries in the field of agricultural biotechnology. But because these advances have not been adopted, Africa remains the only continent where yield averages have consistently fallen over last 50 years, though 65 percent of the labor force is employed by agriculture. Food production is primarily conducted by smallholder/subsistence farmers using rudimentary technologies and hide-bound practices, even as the continent experiences a rapidly growing population, widespread poverty, food insecurity, nutrition insecurity and low literacy.