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9-Misc: Uganda tries to learn from Zambia's GM food controversy

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TITLE:  Uganda tries to learn from Zambia's GM food controversy
SOURCE: The Lancet, UK, Volume 361 (9356)
DATE:   Feb 8, 2003

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Uganda tries to learn from Zambia's GM food controversy
Uganda cautiously encourages more research into GM crops but says it's
not ready to take the plunge

Zambia's refusal last year to accept maize donated for the hungry
inflamed the debate on the use of genetically modified (GM) foods in
Africa. Several months later, it seems that the debate was not entirely

Zambia refused to accept a donation of maize grain because the
consignment had traces of GM maize and the government feared that farmers
might plant the seeds and contaminate local crops. Local people later
broke into the stores and stole the GM maize.

In Uganda, most lay people consider GM foods to be so dangerous that not
even starving people should be fed such food. The scare intensified when
Monsanto, a US-based company --creator of the infamous "terminator" gene
seed technology, which prevents GM crops from producing seed thus forcing
farmers to buy fresh seed stock after every harvest--struck a deal with a
Ugandan seed company to produce hybrid seeds for eastern Africa. These
seeds were not genetically modified, but activists opposed to such
techniques said the government should cancel the deal. The government
ignored their calls and the first crop will be harvested later this year.

The Uganda Consumer Protection Association, adopting scare tactics that
have been used in Europe for years, initially argued that there is no
need for GM foods in Uganda. The organisation raised fears about possible
health hazards, contamination of local strains, and loss of the
traditional farming practice of planting seeds from the previous harvest.

The Uganda National Council of Science and Technology and the National
Agricultural Research Organisation on the other hand dismissed these
fears as being devoid of scientific evidence.

Uganda's Plan for the Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) adviser, Peter
Ngategize, blamed the furore in Zambia on "ignorance". Many people, he
said, had been misinformed that GM foods are not eaten in the West and
that all GM crops have the so-called terminator gene. Whereas in Uganda
genetic engineering has been marketed as a technology that will put food
into the mouths of the hungry.

Despite having fertile soil and good rainfall, Uganda has a high rate of
malnutrition. For instance, 54% of Ugandan children have vitamin A
deficiency, 60% have various manifestations of iodine deficiency, and 43%
of all deaths are associated with malnutrition through lack of protein in
the diet. All these are problems that genetic modification of staple
crops could reverse, argue supporters of GM foods.

In a recent interview with The Times newspaper in London, Uganda's
President Yoweri Museveni acknowledged the potential benefits of genetic
modification of crops. He, however, cautioned that the country could
suffer if it rushed to embrace the technology without adequate thought.

The main lesson Uganda has learnt from Zambia is the urgent need to
develop the capacity to handle the benefits and risks associated with
genetic modification. To date Uganda, like most African countries, does
not have a policy or law on GM food. Records from research and training
institutions show that Uganda has at least 30 biotechnologists. However,
the country's research and development infrastructure is underdeveloped.

Following months of dialogue the Uganda Consumer Protection Association
has adjusted its tone. They no longer say Uganda does not need GM food.
Instead they say that legislation must be speeded up, the government and
companies have to be transparent, and that risks should be addressed. The
position of the government is that Uganda should not adopt GM crops until
the appropriate legal framework is in place, but that research should proceed.

The Uganda National Council of Science and Technology has drafted a GM
food law, which has been sent to the government and will be discussed
first by the cabinet and then in Parliament. At the same time the Council
is initiating a country-wide project to raise awareness about GM foods
among the general public.

So far, the Ugandan government has not accepted applications to introduce
genetically modified cotton and other such crops, which would be
imported. Officials have made it clear that Uganda may not be in a hurry
to consume GM foods, but stress that there is urgent need to prepare for them.