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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Uganda's push for GM
By Orla Ryan
Kampala, Uganda

President George W Bush has said Africa is losing out by not adopting GM, as his government battles with Europe over the sale of genetically modified products there.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has also made clear that he is convinced of the logic for GM food.

President Yoweri Museveni
The Ugandan president is convinced of the need for GM food
Already, steps are underway to put a law in place. But can GM solve the problems the country's farmers face?

In Uganda, there isn't even a word for gene in the local language, laughs Dr Charles Mugoya of the National Council for Science and Technology.

Millions of Ugandans might have a very poor understanding of what genetically modified foods are, but - in one form or another - it looks like GM foods are coming their way.

Testing the ground

Last month, a national committee presented a draft policy on biotechnology and bio safety to government.

This was the first stage of creating a law to govern the introduction, application and commercialisation of GM products in Uganda.

GM is not the total panacea, it is one technology among many, if we brought GM, it would contribute
Dr Charles Mugoya
National Council for Science and Technology
In reality, GM is unlikely to be on the Ugandan market for another three to five years, Consumer Education Trust's Henry Kimera says. He is on the committee which drafted the national policy.

Once this law has been approved, Monsanto and other companies can sell GM products if they submit an application to the National Council for Science and Technology.

If it is approved, their products will then be tested before they can be sold on the Ugandan market.

How a plant is genetically modified

Stephen Matovu, country manager for Monsanto in Uganda, says that such is the negative perception of GM, that huge consumer awareness would have to be done before it could sell those products in Uganda.

Political pressure is high for the process to move quickly and the fear is that Uganda could be left behind.

Debate

In Africa, South Africa has led the way, while Egypt, Nigeria and Zimbabwe are all developing frameworks, which would allow the use of GM products.

Its proponents say GM products could increase food security, raising the income of cash crop farmers and reducing the risk of disease.

GM bananas
GM could make bananas fungus-resistant
Others say GM foods have health and environmental risks, which we do not yet know about.

The most practical and immediate concern for Uganda and other African countries is that if it does pursue GM, it could alienate its biggest export partner, Europe, currently engaged in a trade dispute with America over its reluctance to buy its GM foods.

America has already pressed Uganda to join its side in this battle.

A question of resources

A copy of Uganda's draft policy shows that biotechnology could be used to develop industry and agriculture, for example in the production of drugs and pharmaceuticals.

The policy aims are to build and strengthen national capacity in biotechnology through research and development, and promote biotech as a tool for national development.

Most of the problem is that these countries are poor, biotech is something which involves a lot of investment
Dr John Aluma
NARO
The policy also aims to legislate on it, ensuring safety in development and application.

On top of that, the policy will develop measures to assess risk and manage biotechnological applications.

To implement this, there will be a National Biotechnology Advisory Committee, secretariat, centre and committee.

The draft policy might talk the right language but it is not clear whether there are really the resources to back this up.

A panacea?

Dr Mugoya from the National Council for Science and Technology admits there is a resource issue and that research and development institutions need to be set up.

"Most of the problem is that these countries are poor, biotech is something which involves a lot of investment. Before you get involved, you need a lot of outlay," he says.

Resources may be few, but he says it is a "Catch 22", the real risk is they are left behind, not that they move too fast.

When it comes to speed, political and trade issues are the key pressures.

Dr John Aluma from the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) says: "There has never been pressure on any other technology... When it came to GM, the whole US government is behind it. That is how it has attained a political pressure."

One real danger is that GM is neither as risky or as advantageous as the players contend.

Little research has really been done to develop products which would specifically help poor farmers, for example, more productive cassava or fungus-resistant bananas.

"GM is not the total panacea, it is one technology among many, if we brought GM, it would contribute, it is one small component within a big food area," Dr Mugoya says.

NARO's Dr Aluma agrees: "GM per se will not address any of these problems, there are fundamental factors in our farming system, if not addressed, GM will not help."


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