Proposed revisions to Uganda’s biosafety bill harm smallholder farmers

By Isaac Ongu

May 3, 2018

Though Uganda’s anti-GMO activists have long claimed they support small-holder farmers, they’ve pushed for revisions in the nation’s biosafety bill that target precisely that group.

The sentiments of Uganda’s anti-GMO groups are strongly reflected in a legislative committee’s recommendations to amend the biosafety bill, which was approved by Parliament last October, but returned in December with questions that President Museveni felt needed to be addressed.

At issue now is a clause that proposes isolation zones around genetically modified crops, which would effectively prevent most Ugandan farmers from taking advantage of the improved varieties. Some 77 percent of the population live in rural areas, owning small pieces of land and practicing subsistence farming. Many of them live in poverty, according to Uganda’s National Bureau of Statistics’ 2017 statistical abstract, and access to improved seeds could help raise their standard of living.

“Isolation distances should be for those multiplying maize for seeds,” said Ronald Magado, who leads the Nakasongola District Farmers’ Association. It’s an affiliate of the Uganda National Farmers Federation, which comprises 50 groups of farmers, most of whom grow maize as part of their cropping system. “For food and market [production], isolation is not necessary. The 200-meter distance is not applicable for smallholder farmers who do not even have enough land.”

As currently written, the bill would prevent all but one of the farmers in his organization from growing GM crops. The sole exception would be a farmer who multiplies maize seeds for local seed companies.

“We have a nucleus community where every 50-100 meters is a household surrounded by gardens,” Magado explained. “The recommended isolation distance is for those who have chunks of land and that means our farmers will not be in position to grow such crops if a regulation like that is adopted by Parliament.”

Jemimah Barisyoy is a farmer and community leader in Nalumuli village, which lies in the Wakiso district of central Uganda. She questioned whether the isolation distance had been proposed as a way to create fear around GM crops.

Barisyoy said she and other farmers want the freedom to make their own choices about how to farm. They currently grow primarily the Longe 10H and DK (Dekalb) varieties. Longe 10H is a local maize hybrid developed by Ugandan maize breeders at Namulonge, while DK is a Monsanto conventional maize hybrid imported and sold in Uganda’s seed market.

Most farmers in her village cultivate maize on lots that range from one-quarter to one-half acre in size, in close proximity. She is the largest landholder, with a four-acre parcel. “Farmers should be allowed to plant freely without any restriction,” she opined. “Otherwise, with such restrictions, farmers will fear to grow GMOs.”

Proposed isolation distance clause

The committee report proposes that “a person who engages in a general release of genetically engineered material shall take measures to ensure safety to humans, biodiversity and environment.” The report recommends the following minimum isolation between GM and non-GM crops: 200 meters for corn; 100 meters for cassava; 100 meters for cotton, 10 meters for soybeans and 10 meters for common beans.

The proposed revisions also work against Uganda’s Agriculture Policy, which calls for shifting from subsistence to commercial agriculture.

In trying to appease activists who are seeking a GMO-free world, committee members have failed to consider the needs and wishes of the majority smallholder farmers in Uganda, who will be excluded from growing GM crops because they do not own sufficient land. A law emanating from such a skewed and shrewd process that excludes the most vulnerable in any society legalizes the highest form of social injustice and must be fought and defeated anywhere in the world.