Science & Technology Insights

As student of Biotechnology, I argue that whereas biotechnology is not a panacea, it is an indispensable technology. This edge cutting technology is globally poised as a solution to renowned challenges in diverse disciplines (health, agriculture, industry and environment) and hence should be embraced in Uganda.

It is important to note that tertiary institutions have trained a reliable human resource in the field of biotechnology and an example being Makerere University which trains and equips students with knowledge and skills in this discipline through postgraduate and undergraduate programs has trained about 400 graduates since 2004. This reflection could guarantee enough human resource and the country’s readiness to embrace the technology in terms of human resource. It is pertinent to avoid isolating biotechnology from biosafety.

Uganda already has laws, regulations, and policies (The Animal Disease Act (Cap 38), The Plant Protection Act (Cap 31), The Agricultural Seeds and Plant Act (Cap 28), National Environment Act (Cap 153), The Food and Drug Act (Cap 278) and others) which have a bearing on biosafety management especially as regards Genetically Modified Organisms’ (GMO) use, but they fail to mention this aspect. The urgent call to have a national explicit legal framework that adequately caters for biosafety issues in relation to safe application of modern biotechnology should not go unanswered.

The country is now at advanced stages of developing this law to guide biotechnology application. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 in parliament has caught public attention and the public is engrossed in a heated controversial debate on the Bill’s intent and ultimate purpose. Uganda is signatory to both the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992 (CBD) and its legally binding protocol the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, 2000 (CPB). The Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology applications. Whereas biotechnology as a science is an indispensable technological tool to address various agricultural, environmental, health and other challenges, its safe application should be priority for the Pearl of Africa. In my opinion, the biosafety word in the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 should be the definitive element of the soon to be National Biotechnology and Biosafety Act.

Whereas some sections of civil society have been advocating for a bill that is more precautionary, I would like to state that the bill in its current form is adequate precaution in itself. As everyone may be aware, you cannot release GM crops to farmers without this law being passed to guide scientists and relevant government agencies on how this will be handled. The entire bill is premised on putting in place mechanisms, institutional frameworks for risk assessment and management with the ultimate aim of ensuring that the products of genetic engineering are safe to human health and to the environment. The bill before Parliament provides for adequate level of protection in the field of research, development, safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms taking into account the risks on environment and human health. Thus, Uganda is saying, let us not only regulate the products of this technology but also the process of developing them.

Part 2 of the bill designates the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST) as the National Competent Authority. With reference to the most current creation of the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (MoSTI) in Cabinet, this ministry is better positioned for designation as the National Competent Authority by National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012. The Ministry should establish and empower a Directorate for regulation of biotechnology including designating an officer at the rank of a Director to serve as the Registrar for Biosafety and such a department should be resourced enough to enable the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) perform its work of conducting risk assessments (with support from expert staff in the Ministry). The directorate should therefore have sufficient staff and resources to enable Uganda comply with the article 4 of the Cartagena that requires comprehensive risk assessments to be conducted before approvals for release of GM crops into the environment for use by farmers. As far as the National Focal Point is concerned, the Bill designates the Ministry for Environment as the National Focal Point on matters of Biosafety. This is the Ministry that has always been responsible for Uganda’s multilateral agreements on environment of which the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is one, and thus I support the idea that it should continue to do so as provided for in the bill.

Globally, public participation is recognized as an important tool for promoting sustainable economic growth and development. Whereas the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety requires all parties to promote and facilitate public awareness, education and participation and the bill provides for public participation under Article 7h (i) and Clause 23(3) and (4) which includes sending applications for general release to relevant Ministries and agencies for presentations, publishing on the Website of the Competent Authority and in the National Gazzette for the public to make input. I am however of the view that the applications for general release of GM crops should also be published in at least one (1) newspaper of national circulation. This will enhance and promote the right of the public to contribute to decision making on this important technology.

In a nutshell, Uganda’s readiness and need to embrace biotechnology should not compromise the formulation process of a proper and implementable legal framework to address the potential risks therein taking into account human health and the environment. I consider the question of whether to embrace biotechnology different from the question of whether to pass the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 and I therefore think that Parliament should move quickly and enact the National Biosafety and Biosafety Bill 2012 taking into considerations of the views it has gathered from the public since November 2012 when fresh public consultations by the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament were re-opened.

Jonan Twinamatsiko is a student of Bachelor of sxience in Biotechnology at Makerere University, Uganda. Follow him on twitter @twinejonan

kenyagmosfiAfrica is under attack. But who is the perpetrator and who are the victims?

According to Henk Hobbelink, a Dutch agronomist and founder of GRAIN—a non-profit that campaigns against crop biotechnology and modern farming techniques—the menace is Big Ag, with GMOs as their weapon of choice. Hobelink, according to the GRAIN website, promotes “small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems

Hobbelink has been touring Uganda and other African countries in an attempt to kill growing support among farmers for genetically modified bananas that are resistant to banana wilt, which is devastating the crop. His message: countries that are growing GMO crops, the United States in particular, do not dare feed them to humans but use them exclusively for animal consumption—which is a lie.

The U.S. grows a dozen types of genetically modified crops including sweet corn, soybeans, sugar beets and papaya, which are all for human consumption.

But Hobbelink’s misrepresentations have not stopped the local media, which is reporting extensively on his trip, to referring to him as an International agricultural expert. He revealed this “mystery claim” to small holder farmers in rural Masaka, where banana bacterial wilt has devastated most banana fields. Here was a self-declared expert without a tangible solution to a growing catastrophe telling desperate peasant farmers that the transgenic resistant variety that local scientists have developed to help them is no better than animal feed.

Hobblelink, who runs his NGO from Spain, did not acknowledge Spain’s embrace of GMOs. Spain was the first European country to grow genetically modified plants and remains the region’s largest grower, with approximately 20 percent of its maize production, with few consumer or environmental concerns. Spanish corn is used in food production and for animal feed, as in the U.S. and other countries.

Hobbelink and his group, after holding their GMO demonizing briefings, went on to announce an offer of $2.7 million dollars in grants for what he called ‘viable food systems, economic rights of small farmers and their communities and the mitigation of climate change through low input and ecological agriculture’. This offer, he said, is open only to organizations which are ready to demonize GMOs at the grassroots level.

Background on GRAIN

GRAIN, which stands for Genetic Resources Action International, was founded as a coalition of European development agencies in the 1980s with the primary mission of “resisting the corporate Green Revolution.” Today it claims to be “a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.” GRAIN works in Africa, Asia and Latin America with political, peasant and farm union groups opposing GMOs, conventional and “corporate” agriculture while promoting organic and “agroecology” alternatives.

Dating back to 2001, GRAIN has partnered with numerous anti-GMO groups, most notably the Philippines based MASIPAG, which opposes crop biotechnology and efforts to develop vitamin enhanced crops, such as Golden Rice. They have jointly declared their opposition to “so-called ‘Green Revolution'” efforts by the International Rice Research Institute to engage in a “chemical take-over of rice farming” by “replacing farmers’ varieties with seeds that require costly external inputs such as pesticides, synthetic fertilizers… and coercive credit schemes…” The GRAIN and MASIPAG-led coalition claimed, “rice that is genetically engineered to resist herbicides or carry Bt toxins will lead to increased pesticide levels not to mention ecological disruption….” They have called for governments to prohibit all forms of genetic engineering of rice and other foods, even ones that enhance nutrition or fight against crop diseases, and ban all patents on genetic materials.

GRAIN claims to be a ‘grassroots’ organization. Its annual budget is more than one million dollars, with major contributors including the Barcelona government, OXFAM, and numerous U.S.-based anti-technology foundations. In Africa GRAIN’s major partner is Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA). Participants in its anti-GMO campaign campaign globally include: BIOTHAI (Biodiversity Action Thailand, formerly Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity), CEDAC (Cambodian Center for the Study and Development of Agriculture/ Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien–which markets organic rice), HEKS (Swiss Interchurch Aid group working in Cambodia), KMP (Philippine radical political party), Pesticide Action Network-PAN Indonesia and Philippines, Philippine Greens (Political party), UBINIG (Unnayan Bikalper Nitinirdharoni Gobeshona, the Policy Research for Development Alternatives in Bangladesh). These efforts were promoted by the U.S.-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), an anti-GMO NGO.

GMOs “dangerous and unnecessary”

GRAIN, partnering with AFSA, has also been campaigning against the proposed Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, claiming the interests of “ordinary farmers” in Uganda are ignored.

“We believe agro-ecological practices such as organic farming, soil conservation and biodiverse gardening are solutions to food insecurity, rural poverty and environmental degradation, not introduction of GMOs,” said AFSA’s Bridget Mugabe. “It (the bill) should be withdrawn and redrafted. We really need a law that will not deprive our farmers of their right to grow food based on agroecology,” Ms Mugambe added.

In Uganda and most parts of Africa, the nature of the crop determines whether it is grown organically or otherwise. Uganda’s major staple crops like bananas and cassava are always grown organically. In some few instances, farmers apply insecticides like carbofuran to fight nematodes. Through genetic engineering, Ugandan scientists at the National Banana Program have developed crops which are resistant to both nematodes and banana weevils, but they remain on the shelf because of opposition by GRAIN and other groups. Farmers would not need to apply significant amounts of inorganic pesticides again if they were approved and grown. The anti GMO activists, who claim to be environmentalists, are blinded to the versatility of genetic engineering, which could actually help them in their goal of no or limited chemical use.

Some farmers who grow crops without pesticides or fertilizers–organic crops–do so because they cannot afford the inputs. Often their yields are disastrously low, destroyed by pests. Yet their goods are sold into a Ugandan market that does not discriminate between organic and conventional products, where yields are much higher.

Uganda ventured into organic cotton production years ago, but farmers were badly hit by the resultant low yields coupled with promises of a premium price, which never materialized. Most farmers abandoned organic cotton for other crops like sunflowers. Recently the Cotton Organization was on the spot because Uganda, once known for cotton production, has started importing cotton for its small textile industry. While the organic movement in developed countries profits, small countries like Uganda, whose markets do not discriminate between organic and non-organic, are rendered forever subsistence by adopting an organic-only model. It could be profitable for a European or American farmer to produce organically because they would get premium prices for their products. But using poor farmers in Africa to under produce and remain poor while the certificate issuing middlemen and their organic masters profiteer is immoral. Adopting genetically modified Bt cotton would dramatically reduce the cost in inputs and result in a sharp cut in pesticide use–and save Uganda from importing cotton.

Fighting hypothetical fears with scientific facts

Cornell University’s global Alliance for Science has been accused by some anti-GMO activists of training GM propagandists.

That’s not what is happening.

In Uganda, the Cornell fellows under their Uganda Alliance for Science umbrella went to the very region where Hobbelink and his group had spread fear. In what seemed like a “battle for the grassroots” farmers, they shared with the locals how genetic engineering has helped confer “protection” on their indigenous crop varieties and how biosafety regulations would help protect rural farmers while encouraging innovation. Some of the information provided by the Uganda Alliance for Science included economic facts on losses due to these main crop diseases.

Alliance for scienceMore than 10 million Ugandans consume cassava as their main source of carbohydrates. Cassava brown streak disease causes as much as $24.2 million in damage annually. Another crop under attack is banana consumed by over 13 million Ugadans as their main source of carbohydrates. Bananas contribute up to 22 percent of the country’s agricultural revenue. The estimated yield loss due to banana bacterial wilt is $299.6 million.

The two diseases, banana bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak disease, ravaging Uganda’s farms are a threat to national and region food security as Uganda has been a major supplier of food to neighboring countries, especially South Sudan, which have not had time to develop their agricultural systems due to protracted wars. Conventional methods have not had meaningful success in addressing these challenges. Through genetic engineering, local scientists in collaboration with regional and global counterparts have been able to generate varieties which offer absolute resistance to these diseases.

In this battle for the grassroots where locals are bombarded with divergent information, farmers will have to make their decision based on hypothetical claims of harm made by groups like Friends of the Earth or the very real benefits documented by science groups like the Alliance for Science. They will have to be convinced that genetic engineering will protect their indigenous varieties as the Alliance claims or whether GMOS will “wipe away our sweet tasty natural indigenous forefathers’ varieties” as GRAIN and other anti-GMO groups claim. That choice will determine food availability or lack of it for current and future African populations.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac

Ugandan scientists and students at Makerere University have built an electric car.

The two-seater Kiira EV ('Kiira' means roaring in Lusoga, a local dialect), which is powered by a lithium-ion battery, was test-driven early this month (1 November) at the university. It can reach a maximum speed of 100 kilometres (km) an hour but needs recharging after an 80km run.

Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, principal investigator for the project and deputy vice-chancellor at the university, told SciDev.Net that the conceptualisation and design took place between April and August 2009.

"I assembled 25 engineers, electricians and designers. We used a large percentage of local materials to develop the Kiira EV." He said that they imported only the steering wheel and minor accessories.

The inspiration for the project came from Makerere's participation in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Vehicle Design Summit in Italy, in 2008. The inter-university event — in which Makerere was the only African team — led to the development of Vision 200, a prototype hybrid fuel-electric car.

Following the summit, the team decided to return home and build its own electric car.

In December 2009, President Yoweri Museveni expressed confidence in the product and instructed the Ministry of Finance to provide funding for the project of 25 billion Ugandan shillings (around US$10 million) for five years (2009–14).

Tickodri-Togboa added that a prominent Uganda businessman and member of the Private Sector Foundation, Habib Kagimu, has pledged to promote the group's work.

With such entrepreneurs, he said, the group expects the Kiira EV to evolve into low-cost cars for Ugandans in the near future. The next step is to build an electric 28-seater bus, said Tickodri-Togboa.

Kiira EV project manager Paul Musasizi said the car was tested for road-drive performance including its ability to climb steep gradients and pick up speed.

"It picks speed very quickly, the motor is strong and its reversing [ability] is perfect. It also climbed a 55 degrees incline," he said, after test-driving the car for 4km at a speed of 65km per hour. But he added: "More adjustments still need to be done when it is gaining speed to avoid jerking".

But David Mulabi, a community development programme coordinator at the Uganda Czech Development Trust, said that Makerere should redirect its energies.

"Farmers are struggling with drought because irrigation is too expensive … We need [irrigation] technology … not luxury [cars]," he said.

A feet beer maker extracting banana juice for making his favorite brew. Biotechnology could take those feet off the juice and more market created
A feet beer maker extracting banana juice for making his favorite brew. Biotechnology could take those feet off the juice and more market created

Mwenge bigere, also known as tonto, is a traditional Ugandan fermented beverage that translates as feet beer. Feet beer gets its name from how it is processed: stomping the juice out of overripe bananas sitting in a pit for several days. Uganda is one of the leading banana producers in the world.

Of several banana varieties, there are those specifically for making beer. It’s made out of the juice squeezed from the banana that has ripened in a pit for several days. The juice extractors, who are mostly men, step on the bananas with bare feet, squeezing out the juice. The juice is then mixed with sorghum cultured yeast to finish the work—delivering an alcoholic drink enjoyed by a number of communities in central and western Uganda.

The process needs to be fast before other chemicals in the fruit set in to “lock” the juice from coming out. The “banana dancers” occasionally shout the process is “dying” to spur them to work more 10-Ugandaquickly. The more the juice, the more alcohol they would expect. The “dying” or gelling of the pulp before maximum amount of juice is squeezed out is due to the high pectin concentration in banana. The other disadvantages of the traditional method are that it is labor intensive, has high chance of introducing microbial contaminants thus reducing the shelf life of juice and there is loss of the banana flavor.

Why biotechnology

This enzyme based process for extracting juice from the banana apart from tripling the amount of juice the traditional method of dancing in ripe banana would give, has also helped remove the not so pleasant reality of taking a drink made by a sometimes dirty feet.

The innovator, Samuel Kamya, who is supported by the Microbiology and Biotechnology Centre in the product development department at the Uganda Industrial Research Institute, says this innovation is so simple that one can produce the products from a school dormitory. He uses enzymes (Fruit-zyme) derived from certain bacteria and fungi. The enzymatic treatment also has the advantage of increasing the overall sweetness of the juice. Because it breaks down pectin and other celluloses, it increases juice yield and reduces gelling.

Kamya says gelling due to pectin is a major hindrance in local extraction of juice. The enzyme extracts-based method guarantees a 75 – 80 percent yield of hygienic juice with prolonged shelf life. The unhygienic process and the little juice the traditional process could make inspired and motivated a young Kamya, fresh from school, to conceive of this novel approach. At a National Biosciences Conference where he presented his products to farmers and policy makers, farmers were surprised and amazed by how these ‘micro feet’ could help them make their beloved brew without relying on feet-squeezed juice. The are would also not lose more than 30 percent of juice that would often go to waste using the traditional method.

Lactic acid is another product that could come from cassava but would require genetic engineering. Unlike banana juice extract that is maximized without having to modify microorganisms, in the production of lactic acid from cassava only 50 percent of the lactic acid is extracted. Deborah Wendiro, who heads the biotechnology department at the Uganda Institute of Industrial Research, says genetic engineering would definitely increase these percentage to more profitable levels.

Cassava is one of Uganda’s major staples just after bananas and it contributes to the daily carbohydrate intake of most households in Eastern and Northern Uganda. Cassava is also used for making local gin, which employs many women. Most of the nutrients in cassava are thrown away as waste during the production process. The opportunity that biotechnology provides to cassava growers especially women who are the ones involved in distilling is that they could make more acceptable products than the crude alcohol that have wasted lives of many drinkers. Vinegar, lactic acid, and ethanol are some of the products that will offer rural women the opportunity to make these newer products.

Helping women

Brewing of most traditional drinks in Uganda are a preserve of women. In Uganda as in most parts of Africa, women do not have access to agricultural land. They grow “food crops” which are supposed to be used for daily consumption as men usually raise crops that are mostly market bound. This makes women resort to brewing local alcohol. Most of the substrates are wasted because of the low conversion rates and the limited products that they get. The option of using modified organisms which are efficient in producing lactic acid is key to answering to the plight of these rural women as summarized by one of the local beneficiaries who remarked, “I used to think all bacteria and all fungi are bad and that every acid is ‘acidic’.”

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

Group-members-dance-in-joy-because-of-the-liberator-cassava-variety-1024x683Jaudi women’s group in Kisamwene Village, Butiama district in Mara region of Tanzania received a “Mkombozi” cassava variety from the Tanzanian national agricultural research center, Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute. Mkombozi is a kiswhaili word for liberator. According to Alex M. Bethney, the area Extension worker who offers technical backstopping to this cassava group, the Ukombozi variety is resistant to cassava mosaic disease which is one of the two virus diseases devastating cassava in the region.

This resistant variety was multiplied through tissue culture so it is free from any kind of disease at planting. Tissue culturing delivers clean planting materials but does not add any resistance to what the plant already has. This group received plants that are resistant only to cassava mosaic disease and not the devastating cassava brown streak disease.

Women farmers tissue cultured cassava celebration may be cut short by cassava brown streak disease

Cassava brown streak disease is a viral disease that has devastated cassava fields in the great lakes region including Tanzania. There is no cassava variety that has total resistance to this disease aside a few varieties that scientists consider tolerant but whose resistance breaks down after a few cropping cycles. Cassava brown streak virus is transmitted by white flies, which are in abundance in  farmers’ fields. Within a few months insect visits could take away the smiles from these women farmers.

A-woman-group-leader-smiles-along-with-their-extension-worker-inside-the-tissue-culture-derived-cassava-field-1024x683Juliana Mwangwa, the groups’ leader, was extremely excited about the tissue culture cassava she received. She noted that her group is able to supply members with clean cassava cuttings for planting, helping the many farmers who have been affected by the cassava viruses. That may change, however. Tanzania authorities have relaxed the strict liability clause, which means that Juliana and her fellow women may be able to eventually access a resistant variety.

Tanzania moving in the right direction

The strict liability in Tanzania’s Biosafey regulation 6 states: “All approvals for introduction of GMO or their products shall be subject to a condition that the applicant is strictly liable for any damage caused to any person or entity”. It was amended to include: “…….strict liability “as in the old regulation” shall not apply to researchers and research activities.” The presence of the clause meant Tanzania had no research on genetic engineering because scientists were scared of the stringent penalties based on perceived harm. In contrast, neighboring Kenya and Uganda have been conducting confined field trials on transgenic crops for close to a decade.

Modifying the strict liability clause is a loss for anti-GMO activists and a gain for the Tanzanian farmers and scientists who are directly involved in cassava production and research respectively. Tanzania is moving faster in using genetic engineering in addressing cassava brown streak disease which will enforce the short term goal of continuously supplying clean planting materials through tissue culture. Farmers also got to realize that the tissue cultured cassava that some anti groups prefer to call “Test tube cassava” is not any different from the cassava that they have been growing. They have also realized that subsequently they could multiply this cassava through cuttings the way it is traditionally done. This is the same way farmers will eventually have access to transgenic cassava which are genetically modified to resist the brown streak virus which is a real threat to food security in the cassava growing areas.

Former Tanzanian minister on biotech challenges

Adan Malima, former Tanzania’s deputy Finance Minister who is also the Patron for the Open Forum on Agriculture Biotechnology in Tanzania, noted that decisions on biotech research are not being made by people who know. He underscored the urgent need for grassroots mobilization that would empower farmers to influence decision making process to help shift the current situation in which farming decisions are being made by non farmers who are influenced by self appointed “on behalf of the farmers” activists.

Malima was opening a leadership meeting on grassroots mobilization training organized by the Cornell Alliance for Science for the Africa’s science allies held in the Tanzania’s Mara Region town of Mwanza. According to the Alliance for Science training’s Coordinator, Polly E. Holmberg, it was meant to provide avenue for science supporters to help amplify the voices that have not been heard–farmers voices, like Juliana’s, whose current clean field could easily be wiped out because of a crop disease that can be addressed through genetic engineering.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in developing countries. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

2015 Fellows Philbert Nyinondi, Tanzania (left) & Rufai Ahmed Braimah, Ghana (right). Photo by Ryan Lee.2015 Fellows Philbert Nyinondi, Tanzania (left) & Rufai Ahmed Braimah, Ghana (right). Photo by Ryan Lee.

Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) got off the ground with a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014, with a goal to train and help global researchers, communicators and policymakers about the potential impacts of agricultural technology and how such technology works.

It’s done a tremendous amount of outreach work over the past three years, training young scientists and communicators to more effectively understand and communicate issues in biotechnology, openly and respectfully — unless you see the world through the eyes of Stacy Malkan co-founder and co-director of the U.S. Right to Know Organization, a non-profit organization funded with hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Organic Consumers Association and dedicated to blocking biotechnology research and development. In a recent attack article published in The Ecologist, Malkan accused Cornell of “…promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations…” She continue:

A review of the group’s materials and programs suggests that beneath its promise to“restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision making”, CAS is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.

Malkan clearly thinks that training biotech communicators at Cornell to independently discuss the pros and cons of the technology is against the revolutionary spirit and vision of the university’s founders. This is a classic opening perhaps meant to stir debate or protest from sections of the alumni.

According to the Cornell Alliance for Science website, one of its centerpiece projects is the Global Leadership Fellows Program, a 12 week program which is designed to equip and empower emerging leaders who will advance Alliance shared mission of promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability and raising the quality of life globally. It’s committed to promoting evidence-based decision making and advancing science-based communications.

First hand account

In 2015, Africa sent 15 fellows, five of which were from Uganda. Three of the Ugandan fellows are public servants; two of those are under the research institutes that are working on the different transgenic crops to address various challenges affecting Uganda’s farmers, and the other one works for the Ministry of Agriculture.

I reached out to one of the fellows to find out what exactly they experienced while in the United States and whether they believed they were the target of a propaganda program designed to further the interests of “corporations” — one of Malkan’s central allegations. Nassib Mugwanya who is an outreach officer for the Uganda Biosciences Information Center, which was established by the National Agricultural Research Organization out of the need to communicate research findings in Biosciences, was one of the fellows from Uganda.

Nassib. Cornell Alliance Fellow 

Nassib. Cornell Alliance Fellow

At the end of his training in Ithaca, Nassib was chosen to represent the fellows at a panel discussion organized by the United Nations. He had this to say in response to my question on propaganda allegation.

During the Fellowship, we got the opportunity to hear from various speakers with differing perspectives on GMOs (pro, neutral, against). If propaganda claims were to be true therefore, we should have come out of this fellowship either as a bunch of ‘pro/neutral, or anti-GM ‘propagandists’. I was a militant pro-GM advocate before the fellowship, but now I am a lot calmer when I meet people with differing perspectives.

As someone who spends most of the time listening to farmers’ problems, I find the debates and discussions was sometimes detached from the real issues affecting farmers. For example, not a single encounter I have had with a cassava farmer ends without asking if there’s a variety that’s been developed that is resistant to brown streak virus. Whether it is bred conventionally or through genetic engineering is not much of farmers’ interest. All a farmer needs is a solution to the problem not the debate. I have chosen to promote any scientific solution out there that could solve farmers’ problems. If that means being a propagandist, I am unapologetic about it!

On why he has transformed from being “a militant pro-GM advocate” to being “a little calm” when he meets people with differing perspectives

Despite our differences, we seem to care about the same issues with those on the other side of the debate. No one on either sides of the debate wants a starving population or polluted environment. We just differ in how best to address these problems. Being calm is a starting place to have a sober conversation on finding a common ground to addressing these problems.

When I asked him his views on those who think there is nothing good about GMOs and do not believe the two sides can have any point of intersection

If someone does not see anything good with GMOs, no amount of convincing can change their mind! The GMOs’ ‘good or bad’ debates won’t solve farmers’ problems.

What is propaganda?

Last September, a group calling themselves the Consortium for Food Safety in Africa held a conference in the Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. The conference was mainly held by webcast and podcast, and reportedly attracted many activists and environmentalists and country delegates. Other government representatives were also invited to the conference as “interested observers.”

conventionally bred cassava variety which is the most resistant to cassava brown streak disease but still it is breaking down.

conventionally bred cassava variety which is the most tolerant to cassava brown streak disease but still it is breaking down.

This podcast group went on to attack the collaborative cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease research taking place in Uganda and Kenya. The claim by the anti-GMO activists was that the two countries, Kenya and Uganda, were being used for field trials of “mutant” cassava virus developed by biotechnology companies. They said the corporations were trying to develop mutant cassava viruses to attack natural cassava strains in Africa. They also claimed that these new cassava strains would put at risk the food security of 800 million Africans and also millions in South America and China who largely depend on cassava as staple food. It was also reported these anti GMO groups alleged that countries including Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda were being used as test ground for release of the very virulent cassava viruses to attack the crops.

But accusations weren’t reserved just for big corporations, the governments of these countries were attacked too. They were accused of having naively accepted the solution offered by “Monsanto’s Bill Gates” to provide them with GMO cassava. They went on to say this would mean that the GMOs cassava planted in Africa would from then on come from only one source, Monsanto. The US company, they claimed, would thereby have hijacked the global cassava supply and endangered the food security of African countries, hurting small farmers and Africa as a whole. Journalists quoted delegates purportedly from South Africa and East Africa criticizing their governments for allowing the Bill Gates and Monsanto to devise schemes to force feed Africa with “toxic GMO” cassava strains while killing the “natural cassava” by using “mutant cassava viruses.”

It was all nonsense, but most people not familiar with the science or the context of the GMO debate were easily fooled.

The anti-GMO Consortium for Food Safety in Africa does not have an address or even a webpage. Similar to Malkan’s tactic, its goal was to discredit legitimate, well established organizations, including Uganda’s National Crops Resource Research institute (1954), Africa’s International  Institute of Tropical Agriculture (1967), Kenya’s Agricultural Research Institute now Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (1979), and the U.S.-funded Donald Danforth Plant Center (1998). Together, they are the institutions  carrying out collaborative research on developing a transgenic cassava variety resistant to both brown streak disease and mosaic disease. Unlike the Consortium for Food Safety in Africa that is claiming these institutions are practicing “Bio-terrorism”, these institutions are accountable because they have been around for decades and have a history of transparency and good works.

Who are these people who present themselves as saints when a simple search for their association does not yield even a virtual home page? Does supporting research in genetic engineering make someone lose credibility?

Groups like Consortium for Food Safety in Africa know Africa lacks sufficient factual information on GM crops. They know that by presenting scary scenarios to sections of vocal population they could succeed in delaying Africa from accessing products of modern biotechnology — not because they care about the rural African populations vulnerable to famine, but because they want to service their anti-GMO fantasy.

What is true about GM cassava and Cassava brown streak disease?

A Cassava plant ravaged by brown streak disease

A Cassava plant ravaged by brown streak disease

Cassava brown streak diseasewas first identified in 1936 in Tanzania. Two virus strains; cassava brown streak virus (CBSV) and Ugandan cassava brown streak virus (UCBSV) are responsible for causing the disease.

Cassava brown streak disease is capable of destroying up to 100 percent of a cassava crop causing many farming families to go hungry and threatening their livelihoods. According to published reports, healthy cassava harvests could increase incomes for more than half of the households in cassava-growing regions of Uganda and Kenya. Cassava is an important source of food and income for small-holder farmers in Africa, because it grows well in conditions of drought and low soil fertility.

In 2011, Food and Agriculture Organization experts in Nairobi said cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) was on the verge of becoming an epidemic, and called for an urgent increase in funding, research, training, surveillance and other measures to help farmers and breeders. They noted the appearance of the disease in previously unaffected areas, and the lack of continued funding for research and development work to address CBSD in the region had only added to the threat already presented by Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) which was already present.

The Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) project was established in 2006 and includes African and international organizations working together to develop effective solutions for the control of cassava viral diseases. Supported by this partnership, VIRCA researchers are using genetic modification techniques to improve resistance to cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) in familiar and well-liked varieties, to help cassava farmers have an abundant harvest so they can provide for their families and share the surplus with their communities.

Over the past few years, the VIRCA team has conducted several confined field trials in both Uganda and Kenya. These trials have been done with the approval and cooperation of government regulators, and under their oversight. Very effective resistance to CBSD has been observed in improved cassava plants. In collaboration with experienced cassava breeders in the region, the VIRCA project is now employing familiar techniques of conventional plant breeding to combine transgenic CBSD resistance with non-transgenic CMD resistance to develop new varieties that will provide broad-spectrum virus control.

Is Cornell University a threat to the anti-GMO propaganda economy?

Should an independent university like Cornell host a program to help communicators converse to the public about biotechnology? How are scientists, journalists and farmers suppose to have a dialogue with the politicians and the public about biotechnology when they are met with hostility simply because an activist from an anti-GMO group like Action Aid told them first that GMOs causes cancer and sterility? Is learning how to counter propaganda with facts propaganda?

When African countries lose trust in their public research institutes, will the anti-GMO activists provide solutions? What are the precautionary principle preachers doing to help farmers combat existing parasitizing and evasive plants like striga, congress weed, and lantana which have infested most of Africa’s farmlands and pasture land? Do you expect a cow or goat which has eaten grass from a poor soil to give you manure which is sufficient in nutrient?

Use of propaganda, has over the years oiled the engines that drive the anti-GMO campaigns. The biggest threat to propaganda is conveying science and facts to those who communicate and equipping them on ways to educate the public in a way that is simple and understandable. If that is what Alliance for Science is doing then it is prudent for every university to equip people on how to communicate that science in the same way.

In Uganda where Nassib and four other Alliance for Science Fellows come from, two staples — banana and cassava are under siege. They are being attacked by banana bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak disease respectively. Breeders have tried conventional methods and did not come up with any solution. In the case of cassava, several tolerant conventional varieties have been released but before long they succumb to brown streak virus.

Activists have done their best to ensure farmers do not access GM varieties by linking them to all sorts of things like sterility, impotence, and cancer. Despite, all this, Uganda’s president came out clearly in support of scientists who are working hard to provide solutions to Ugandan farmers. He asked those who are against the technology to modify their thinking. By Alliance for Science equipping these communicators with factual information and how to counter anti-science propaganda, it will help ordinary farmers to receive facts on GMOs which will inform their decision about whether they should adopt biotechnology versions of various crops or not. The decisions should be in the hands of farmers and not activists.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate on science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.


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