Lack of GM laws ‘criminal’, says Ugandan ex-minister

Millet storage, Burkina Faso Copyright: IRD/Cornet

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[ENTEBBE] A former Ugandan minister for agriculture who is now a senior official at the International Food Policy Research Institute used a colourful speech last month to state that failure to accept GM crops in Africa is both unjust and based on irrational fears.

Addressing a meeting on biotechnology and biosafety in Entebbe, Uganda on 18-20 April, Wilberforce Kisamba-Mugerwa said that delaying the enactment of laws that promote biotechnology to fight hunger is a glaring denial of justice to the poor.

He said that policymakers and legislators who fail to create laws to accommodate the use in food of biotechnology products such as genetically modified organisms are “accomplices in murdering” African children who die of hunger and malnutrition.

“Lawyers say justice delayed is justice denied, but it is also true that food delayed is killing people,” said Kisamba-Mugerwa. “We are becoming murderers by delaying quick access to genetic resources.”

The former minister pointed out that industry began using biotechnology some time ago and that drugs used to treat diseases “are all products of biotechnology, modified in one way or another”.

“But in agriculture, we are over-regulating and mainly citing risks. Why should we overplay the risks and not the opportunities?” he asked.

He illustrated his point by saying that another product of technology, the aeroplane, is the fastest means of transport but also has risks.

“If we were to hype up the risks of flying, I would not be here for this meeting,” he said, adding that to reach Entebbe he had flown from France, via Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya.

According to Kisamba-Mugerwa, biotechnologists are themselves partly to blame for the perception of risk surrounding GM crops because of the way they have communicated about genetically modified organisms.

“Genetic modification has been stigmatised, so we need to package it in a very different way,” he said. “Our communication strategy must change for our products to be acceptable. Otherwise, genetically modified organisms are viewed as poisonous.”

He argued that including a range of professionals, such as environmental scientists, legislators, communicators and teachers in making decisions about biotechnology would reduce suspicions and resistance to GM organisms.  

The National Agricultural Research Organisation co-organised the meeting, which was funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

Kisamba-Mugerwa is director of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s International Service for National Agricultural Research, known as ISNAR, which is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Read more about GM crops in SciDev.Net’s GM crops dossier.