In Africa, are products risky even if they don’t exist?

RECENTLY we had a trip to Uganda where we held very inspiring conversations with members of parliament on the need for them to pass the biosafety bill into law. The meeting organized by the minister for Finance in charge of Planning Hon Matia Kaisaija went quite well. We were encouraged by the fact tha

AATF and AfricaBio Meeting with Uganda VP, Deputy Speaker, Minster for Planning, MPs

AATF and AfricaBio Officials Meeting with Uganda VP, Deputy Speaker, Minster for Planning, MPs in Parlaiment, Kampala, Uganda

t most MPs are convinced that the country needs biosafety law to govern modern biotech activities in the country. Even so, it was not lost on us that more of such engagement and similar conversations are needed to help disabusing some MPs of the myths they hold against GMOs if the country is to get a facilitative biosafety law. From the discussions, it was evident that most MPs have been visited severally by biotech deniers to instill fear in them about GMOs. In deed while at parliament buildings waiting to meet with the MPs, we came across some young man who was busy writing the names of each legislators on leaflets whose contents were laden with fear-mongering propaganda against biotech crops.

I know this because I obtained a copy of each leaflet from the young man. We were not surprised when during the plenary discussions legislator after legislator stood up to say why the country does not need GMOs because they  are rejected by Europeans; cause cancer, cause obesity, are dead seeds, will enslave farmers; will pollute the environment and so on and so forth. Needless to say, but were not surprised because these were the same propaganda messages in the leaflets. And never mind that none of those claims could stand scientific scrutiny, the MPs recited them as if they were gospel truth. But again, who said anti-GM activism has never been about science, the minds or evidence. It is all about scaremongering, fear-appealing, emotional-appealing, empty politicking and trade-warring. The danger is that the political leadership in Africa has been so paralyzed by such potent propaganda they are unable to take bold policy reforms that would lead to commercialization of GM crops.  Hence, the loss of opportunities to enhance crop yields and reduce poverty in Africa as the recent Chatham House report tiled On Trial: Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa rightly concludes. Instead of Governments providing reliable information and data to contradict the misinformation campaigns against GM, they prefer to maintain the perilous silence and maintain a “deadlock” of continual field trials to appease both sides of the GM divide whereby proponents are pleased research is done, while opponents are satisfied with lack of commercialization of the products. That is why the bold steps taken by Hon Matia Kasaija and Hon Mathias Kasamba, Chair of the Parliamentary Departmental Committee, to mobilize parliament to pass the bill into law are extremely commendable. If the law is passed, Uganda will have high chances of becoming the fifth African country after South Africa, Egypt and Sudan, to grow GM crops. The country is currently leading in number of biotech crops under confined field trials. The crops researched for control of various diseases, value addition and pests include banana, cassava, cotton, maize and rice, with each having more than one event. As OFAB Kenya Country Coordinator, Margaret Karembu, rightly reasons “Africa cannot afford to lose sight of the opportunity GM crops offer for feeding its people.”  Agricultural development in Africa has a set of complex challenges low soil fertility, drought, high pest and disease prevalence, weak land-tenure systems, a lack of access to finance and impacts of climate change among other things. Even so, the revolutionary wonders of GM technology in agriculture have not been allowed to contribute much towards helping fix these issues in Africa. If common sense prevails, Africa’s agricultural development ought to be in a race against time to eliminate these challenges by providing farmers with access to the investment, technologies and knowledge they need to increase farm productivity. This is more urgent because African farm yields have at best stagnated at levels well below global averages or fell far below. OECD, UNDP, FAO and World Bank indexes all paint a grim picture of an Africa with rising population against a backdrop of falling per capita cereal output. Comparatively, whereas per capita cereal output in Africa has declined by 13 per cent, it has increased by 44 per cent in Asia and 48 per cent in South America since 1960. The reason is simple. The two regions have kept pace with technological innovation in Agriculture, starting with the Green Revolution and now the Gene revolution whereas Africa missed the former and, going by its actions, it is poised to miss the later as well. Is it true as Prof Calestous Juma famously said that ‘in Africa products are risky even if they don’t exist’?  This negative mindset towards innovation must be stopped at all cost if Africa is to benefit from the transformational power of modern biotechnology to help fix some of the challenges facing its agrarian sector. And those who support science-led development must support leaders like Hon Kasaija and Kassamba of Uganda to remove the most important barriers to biotech adoption – such as regulatory constraints, consumer distrust and weak farmer demand. We must help them to fully comprehend the debilitating context of the wider social and political dynamics surrounding GM, typified by misinformation and sometimes violence guided and funded by the hidden hands of a few greedy organic industry multinationals driven by self-aggrandizements. Indian authorities have realized this and ordered agents of such multinationals out of the country. That is the only way Africa will succeed in reversing the disabling socio-political environment for GM development in Africa that is beginning to threaten continued investment in this technology by influential donors, governments and industry.

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