Scientific Progress, GMOs, and Racism: The Ugandan Food Crisis Seen Through Western Eyes

African Farmers

The matter of GMOs in Africa expose the alliance between science and big business; discussions about it show the racism in the science-fan blogosphere.

African Famine, and What Else Is New?

The Ugandan Parliament, faced with a food crisis, recently passed the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill. This legislation allows for the regulated use of GMO crops in this drought-stricken African nation. The controversy surrounding this legislation was fierce, but what was it all about?

According to a columnist at a certain Patheos channel, it was science denial, plain and simple. The columnist talks about problems such as drought and Bacterial Banana Wilt that plague the agricultural population, touts GMOs as the solution to the problems, and then describes the opposition to GMOs in Uganda:

GMOs are solutions to these problems, and agricultural laborers should be allowed to have direct access to a wide variety of resistant strains during a time when they need them the most.

Unfortunately, Ugandans have not had access to these varieties of GMOs due to government restrictions against access to genetically modified crops (alongside most other countries in the region). This restricts Ugandan’s access to non-wilting crops during a time of desperate need, and prevents farmers from having access to more strains that will help farmers and ranchers weather the drought. […]

Unfortunately, pseudoscience drastically effects this already vulnerable population. Anti-GMO sentiment has infected Ugandan politics for years, and plagued the discourse on these life-saving biotechnologies that can help the country’s impoverished citizens. Upon a casual look, these anti-GMO arguments don’t seem to diverge significantly from any other GMO arguments we are familiar with in the West. They use an appeal to nature, they conflate hybrids and crossbreeding with GMOs, and they demand proof that there is zero risk involved in introducing GMOs before moving forward (as if there is ever 0% risk for anything we do). It would not be surprising if anti-science propaganda and scaremongering through organizations such as Greenpeace have made it from the West to Africa, and created a political barrier preventing vulnerable populations from getting the help that they deserve.

Science and Corporate Interests

First off, there’s no evidence that GMOs can simply solve the problem of food insecurity. As the Guardian‘s Emma Hockridge notes , “The future of feeding a growing world population, in the face of all of the challenges of climate change and resource depletion that face us, is crop variety, soil fertility, and farming systems like organic which don’t rely on costly inputs. Not chemical and agribusiness controlling the research and food markets of a GM-inspired future.”

Furthermore, the controversy over the GMO bill in Uganda didn’t seem to have much to do with superstitious opposition to “these life-saving biotechnologies that can help the country’s impoverished citizens.” In fact, the opposition to GMOs was motivated by concerns about a corporate shakedown of these impoverished citizens. The corporate sponsors of the GMOs being introduced into the Ugandan ecosystem are going to change the entire agricultural practice of rural farmers in Uganda by forcing them to buy patented seeds rather than being able to reuse seeds as in the past. In the Ugandan Observer, a columnist describes the economic disaster waiting to happen in Uganda:

However, scientists were not honest to equally tell the MPs and the entire world the financial and legal ramifications of adopting GMOs. For instance, most ordinary farmers (not commercial farmers) cannot afford to buy seeds whenever it is planting time.

What GM seeds actually do is that they lock the farmer and seed and fertiliser entrepreneur in unconscionable contract. The GM seeds do not give a chance to farmers to harvest and create or preserve some seeds (as it used to be in olden days) for the next planting season.

Just like computer scientists make money by creating the need to further insulate oneself against harmful malware by introducing new antidotes such “super” antivirus for a fee, so will be the case with GMOs.

The farmers or users will be inflexibly tied to the controls of these seed producers for solutions and thereby create an infinite market for their products. Will that really solve poverty in Uganda? Will that make the lives of Ugandans better? I have my doubts!

Interviewed for New Vision in Uganda, Bridget Nabikolo, a programme coordinator at the Centre for Development Initiatives (CDI) of the African Biodiversity Network of South Africa, describes the anti-GMO sentiment in economic terms too:

“Patented seeds mean that seed saving is forbidden and we must buy new seeds each season,” she said. Many small-scale farmers, will be unable to bear the additional cost of buying expensive patented seed each season,” added Nabikolo. She said the likely fear of contaminating our agriculture and seed with GM0s would lead to loss of export markets to countries that have already rejected GM foods. Nabikolo added that this would lead to the perpetual enslavement of small farmers by corporations that is to say by controlling all the seed and forcing us to buy on their terms, season upon season.

GMOs do not address the real problems of food insecurity in Uganda. “GMO seeds will cause total dependence of the farmer on the corporations. If we are forced to buy seed every season, and lose our seed saving practices and seed heritage, we will lose ownership, sovereignty, independence and our dignity. We will have no choice over our seed and be forced to accept only what is on the market,” she added.

It seems like the stereotype of the primitive, superstitious African resonates in the science fan’s imagination. It’s difficult for science cheerleaders to acknowledge that scientific progress takes place in a cultural and economic context, and that while GMOs may be safe for consumers and the environment, they’re not a cure-all for Uganda’s food insecurity. It’s much easier to blame all opposition to GMOs on pseudoscientific propaganda and ignorant suspicion rather than admit that these African farmers see a future where starvation is only one of their problems.

At least in this instance, scientific progress and corporate domination go hand in hand.

When questioned, the blogger at Patheos simply asserted that the economic aspect of the Ugandan controversy is separate from the science of GMOs. I suppose that’s true. But it’s disturbing that he wouldn’t have mentioned, even in passing, the concerns about corporate control of the seed legacy that authorities and observers in Africa considered so important in the case of the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill.

What do you think? Is characterizing all anti-GMO sentiment as pseudoscientific nonsense only telling one part of the story? Is the science fan’s outrage at the way developing nations resist Western science based on fact or bias?

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