Food crisis

The debate on genetically modifed foods

Despite a hearty meal and dessert on your table tonight, there are more than seven million people in Uganda facing starvation.

The number of people in Uganda who are starving has risen from 1.2million to 7million people (per the Uganda Ministry of Disaster Preparedness). This follows the prolonged drought that has made it impossible to get bountiful harvests and which has killed livestock for lack of pasture and water, especially in the north-eastern and northern districts. Uganda’s cattle-corridor stretching from Karamoja to Teso and Ankole sub-regions is hard hit by the drought.

Recent reports of dried up banana plantations and meager harvests of food crops show the intensity of drought in Insigiro district (western sub-region) which is one of the banana baskets of the country.

Uganda is calling for food relief from her citizens who may have some to spare, saying this move is on humanitarian grounds in the time of this calamity.

Is it time for GMF’s to be legalized in the food production system of the country?

 Genetically Modified Foods (GMF’s) are plants whose genes have been altered scientifically to create a desired feature, like resistance to disease or tolerance to pests.

They are sometimes called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s).

They are different from traditional/organic cross breeds and grafts. GMF’s have a laboratory origin. Their artificial species may have adverse effects on organic species. Some plants which have been altered include: alfalfa (first planted in the U.S in 2011): canola (est. 90% of U.S crop): corn/maize (approx. 88% of the crop in the U.S in 2011): cotton (approx. 90% of U.S crop in 20122): papaya/pawpaws (in Hawaii on approx. 988 acres): soy/soya (approx. 94% of U.S crop in 2011) and sugar beets (approx.95% of the crop in the U.S in 2010).

[Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food]

Scientists use a gene for toxin production from the bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and introduce it into food seeds to create resistant food crops and seeds.

It is said that this bacterium is safe for human consumption. However, the WHO and FAO are weary of the genetic composition of GMO’s and GMF’s. They fear that although alleged to be safe for human consumption, they may contain side effects.  Through their protocol on GMO’s, GMO’s and GMF’s require extensive and prolonged research and observation to verify their authenticity on the consumer market.

What do Proponents for GMF’s say?

  • Proponents argue that the product is viable, cheaper than organic foods and profitable on the market.
  • They say the supply of organic foods is limited compared to the demand and hence need to address the disparity. They also say that the foods will address hunger spells around the world.
  • In addition, the increasing weather changes affecting crop production in the natural system compel the population to research into food multiplication in a scientific manner.
  • Also, the need to create and grow disease resistant crops is a factor. Many pests and diseases have become resistant to traditional pesticides, forcing scientists to curb the strains using GMF’s from the onset.

 The Opponents of GMF’s argue that;

Anything whose genetic order is altered will always have a side effect.

  • They argue that organic plants and crops have natural taste, contain adequate nutrients and minerals and also resonate well with human consumption. Altering them is like an abuse to their existence.
  • Reproduction by grafting and other natural forms of food modification are sufficient to create a larger food basket for the growing population. They only advocate for large scale production where available and necessary, as well as local production to address domestic shortage.
  • Without clear medical reports on the safety of altered foods, it is easy to assume that GMF’s are dangerous for any consumption.

The Food Crisis in Uganda

Particular issues call for urgent consideration. Such is the food crisis in Uganda where the population majorly depends on agriculture or is involved in one form of agricultural activity to supplement a livelihood.

It is reported that a big section of Uganda’s agricultural output is domestic and the nature of crops grown are food crops. Cash crops account for sparse figures of the total output.

On average, the family food stock can last a traditional homestead a season until the next planting season. Unfortunately, these statistics do not reflect the weather changes in the country which affect the output of each season.

Like in some developed countries like the U.S, average citizens living on a meager budget may not afford organic foods. They usually resign to GMF’s on sale (sometimes without knowledge of the difference) despite the wide spread doubts on altered foods.

There are reports that in Uganda, bananas and maize varieties have been altered in some research institutions. In areas like Bushenyi and Sheema where bananas are grown extensively, many farmers who grew the first altered crop have since cut down and burnt the stems. They claim that the altered products do not reproduce naturally (as if it is expected of laboratory results). Eventually, they are forced to buy new seeds and also re-fertilise because pests affect the natural texture of the soil in the long run.

Being in the banana food basket region of the country, it is not surprising that the recent drought in Isingiro has affected the area.

Possible solutions

  • Re-claim the gardens in a traditional process. Farmers always know the best farming practices conducive for output without the need for artificial fertilizers. They use dung, ash, mulches, urea, etc.
  • Re-plant the organic plant stems using improved farming methods suitable for organic farming.
  • Reinstate the government policy aimed at establishing regional crops growth in the country. Previously, sub-regions had specific food crops grown in their areas. For example, sweet potatoes in the Teso/eastern region, bananas, maize, beans, irish potatoes, etc in many western and central regions, simsim in the northern region et al.
  • The government should encourage farmers to sell crop produce to its representatives in the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness at a fair, subsidized market price.

Reports indicate a sharp increase in organic food sales and marketing campaigns on the consumer market. Consumers prefer the natural product to an altered one. However, this population of consumers can afford to buy the overpriced organic foods in stores. Deprived homesteads cannot.

Affordable and subsidized prices of organic foods encourage farmers to sell to local populations despite the income differences.

  • Apply improved ways of food storage of viable products overtime. The responsible ministry can thereafter distribute them during the bouts of drought.
  • Re-afforestation and afforestation in gazetted forest regions to balance weather conditions and make them conducive for food agriculture. Under the tropical climate, food crop growing flourishes among the wet regions of Uganda. Suffice to say that even the ‘dry’ regions experience some form of wetness during which they grow majorly cereal crops.

Conclusion

It is important to involve the active agriculturalists among the public and the government to see reason and create food reserves. Without efforts from both parties, food exports will soon deny local consumers access to nutritious varieties of food. Inevitably, cheaper altered foods may usurp the food market, creating another worry, once side effects to any consumption are discovered.

This article appears in our weekly digital law magazine, The Deuteronomy Vol 8, Issue 2 of November 11th, 2016

To receive The Deuteronomy in real time, click HERE.

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