Most of the readers of this blog are likely evidence-based thinkers and are supportive of science-based solutions for real-world problems. As such, we support the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which we recognize as safe and effective technology. GMOs will be necessary to keep up with future agricultural demands. Our global population continues to increase, while we have nearly maximized our amount of arable land for growing crops, leading to a projected net decrease in cropland per person by 2050. We can design GMOs to become resistant to diseases, help them become more drought-resistant, and even change their cosmetic properties so fewer people discard food unneccessarily, allowing us to get the most food out of our limited arable farmland. GMOs will be necessary for a growing planet with limited resources.
If you’re like me, you may get the sense that GMOs, like renewable energy and emission mitigation, are long-term problems that will require some patience developing technologies and implementing effective political solutions. While we can recognize anti-GMO ideology relies on pseudoscience and we need to push back on that, we may not feel like anti-GMO sentiments are a high political priority compared to many of the other problems we currently face. While long-term goals may be many GMO proponents’ primary goal, there are still problems that we need to deal with now that appear to be much more pressing. However, there are global issues where GMOs are exactly the solution needed, and we need science-based solutions like these as soon as possible.
Uganda is currently facing a massive drought, something that has been occurring since 2016. This has led to record-high temperatures and left millions of Ugandans in need of food aid. This is to be expected when there is a natural crisis like this in Uganda, where 80% of the population is employed in agriculture. Because of reduced rainfall and increased temperature, the drought has been a major contributor to loss in crops like bananas and coffee, and further loss in livestock due to a decrease in feedstocks to help them survive.
This is a problem that severely affects the poor in this country. Once the drought hits, this large population of laborers are the first to be affected, especially if their only source of food and income starts vanishing. 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.
Coffee is one of these crops that are particularly affected by the drought. While Uganda only contributes a modest amount to the worldwide coffee supply, coffee is a cornerstone crop for the country’s economy. Due to climate change, annual weather patterns have shifted, altering the growing season. This makes it difficult for farmers to grow coffee and help maintain a reliable income.
Another problem that Uganda faces is Banana Bacterial Wilt, a disease that threatens banana crops across the country. The banana is a staple crop there, and roughly 70% of the population eats the fruit there every day. GMOs provide solutions to help banana crops resist bacterial strains that threaten the growth of the fruit, but farmers have not had access to these technologies due to government regulations. According to croplife.org:
“Seventy percent of Ugandans eat banana every day. In the face of Banana Bacterial Wilt, which has devastated our banana crops, scientists in Uganda have developed a genetically modified species that is resistant to this threat. However, at the moment, we have a regulatory problem. We don’t have a bill in place to be able to commercialize it.
We have been pushing hard to the extent that the draft bill has already been discussed on the floor of Parliament, but then it wasn’t passed because of interference from foreign NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). One NGO, in particular, has spent a lot of time and money falsely publicizing that genetically modified crops are causing increased incidences of cancer and impotence in the country, despite the fact that biotech crops aren’t even commercially available in Uganda.”
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.
Fortunately, there is already progress on this problem, and there was a massive milestone this week towards helping Ugandan citizens gain access to diverse strains of crops. On Wednesday, October 4th the Ugandan parliament signed the National Biosafety Act of 2017 into effect. Their president, Yoweri Museveni, has endorsed GMOs as a solution to Uganda’s problems in the past, and is expected to sign this into law. This will allow farmers to access strains of crops like bananas that are resistand to bacterial wilt, many of which have already been developed.
Keeping things like these in mind helps gain us maintain a sense of perspective for pseudoscience and how it affects a wide spectrum of populations. In Western culture, while we recognize the necessity to develop disease-resistant crops and improve our crop yield per surface area, a large proportion of our farmers aren’t nearly as vulnerable as these African populations. With the country’s staple crop in jeopardy and so many agricultural laborers relying so closely on the success of their current yields, pseudoscience directly jeopardizes well-being and livelihood of a significant amount of the Ugandan population. Combatting pseudoscience and spreading evidence-based reasoning in this case can help prevent the spread of propaganda and literally save lives today.