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Uganda learns from Zambian GM food controversy

Last year, Zambia's refusal to accept maize donated for the hungry1 inflamed the debate on the use of genetically modified (GM) foods in Africa. 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. A recent article in the Lancet asserts that in Uganda, most lay people consider GM food to be so dangerous that not even starving people should be fed such food. The article explains that the Uganda Consumer Protection Association (UCPA) 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 traditional farming practice of planting seeds from the previous harvest. On the other hand the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology and the National Agricultural Research Organisation, dismissed these fears as being devoid of scientific evidence.

The article points out that 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. According to the author, the main lesson Uganda has learnt from Zambia is the urgent need to develop the country's 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. Following months of dialogue, the UCPA has adjusted its tone. They say that legislation must be speeded up, the government and companies must 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 countrywide project to raise awareness about GM foods among the general public. Officials in government 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.

Wendo, C (2003). Uganda tries to learn from Zambia's GM food controversy. The Lancet, vol 361, Feb 8th, pp 500

Show footnotes

1See Field Exchange 18, March 2003. Genetically modified food in emergencies, p14

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Uganda learns from Zambian GM food controversy. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p17. www.ennonline.net/fex/19/uganda

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