Opinion piece by Jonan Twinamatsiko
Twitter handle: @TwineJonan
Uganda can’t afford to ignore the power of technology in addressing population growth and climate change challenges and pursuit for economic transformation.
Uganda’s Vision 2040 Agenda envisions a transformed society with the aspiration to actualize tremendous transition from a peasant to a modern and prosperous country within 30 years. Science, Technology, Engineering and Innovation (STEI) are listed as fundamental pillars for economic growth. Agriculture remains Uganda’s back borne and therefore STEI application is more needed in the sector to harness national development.
Emerging technologies like modern-biotechnology hold enormous potential with applicability in diverse fields. The role of modern biotech in spurring agricultural-led economic transformation and sustainable development in Africa and Uganda in particular is subject to furious scientific debate and intense public controversy.
More recently, there’s intense debate about the necessity for a law on the biotechnology and biosafety subject in Uganda. The debate is engulfed by false and scary accusations, myths and propaganda against genetic engineering, one of the useful tools of modern biotechnology. What informs public perception is the widely spread un/non-scientific misinformation about genetic modification. But, only triumph of facts and scientific evidence over hearsay in informing decision-making and public policy formulation, shall spur tech-led society transformation in this era.
Modern biotechnology which includes interdependent components like genomics, bioinformatics, transformation, molecular breeding, diagnostics, and vaccine technology, is vastly used at agricultural research level by the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) scientists especially for productivity enhancement, pest and disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance and nutrient enrichment of crops. It’s applied where conventional methods have failed and on a case-by-case basis.
Uganda has the region’s fastest population growth rate. 3.3% growth rate is ranked as fourth highest population growth rate worldwide with Syria’s 7.9% topping the list, according to Statista. Today, Uganda is home for approximately 44 million people and with aforementioned growth rate, the same 77,147 sq. miles acreage shall serve over 55 million and 100 million people in 2050 and 2100 respectively. Illustratively, land acreage may, even by 2050, fail or exhaustedly serve the expectations of her occupants if technology adoption is curtailed. Of course, back dating the statistical data would avail comforting figures which explains why there’s a continuously celebrated richness of the natural resource base that the country-the Pearl of Africa has while sidelining future projections.
Population growth isn’t an exclusive pressure. It’s in the face of climate change that population numbers are bulging. Talking of climate change; pests and diseases, drought, famine, soil infertility, water-levels’ reduction et-cetera comes into play. The frequency and ferocity of these are likely to increase as climate continues to bite.
Even to-date, some Ugandan families (1%) go to bed on empty-stomachs. 13% of the total population remains stressed and 86% is minimally food insecure. In January this year (2018), the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) reported an acute food insecurity situation in the country. In the wake of Fall Army Worm (FAW) devastation of maize which is both a food and industrial crop, Uganda economically lost 600 billion ($192m) in a single season. Crop diseases continue to claim farmers’ gardens. According to NARO report (2014), the country loses $299.6m annually due to Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) disease and Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) causes an annual loss of $24.2m. These are staple crops on which 23 million people (combined) depend for both food and income. Conventional approaches have failed to address challenges yet modern biotech research has proved effective with unequalled ability to amicably address them.
As correctly argued by Prof. Calestous Juma in his book titled Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa’s Development; “Every generation receives a legacy of knowledge that it can harness to its own advantage” and every generation therefore must blend the new and old and chart its own path in development. The generation’s restrain to adopt emerging technologies like biotechnology, hoping to continue depending on old, indigenous/conventional knowledge to ensure desirable livelihoods and survival amidst numerous and even, unprecedented challenges is unsustainable. If that’s a path to tread, it’s overly wrong and hence must be revoked and put to use the technological knowledge.
In order to sustainably feed the country’s drastically incremental population in the face of climate change effects, there’s utmost need to change the approach and appropriately use all tools in the agricultural tool-box, prioritizing modern tools like biotechnology. The complex agricultural challenges faced today must be solved using advanced tools, like it’s in the medical field.
Indeed, emphasis should be put on maximizing the benefits associated with modern-biotech while reducing the negative impacts through an established regulatory framework but equally important, is consideration of the long-term implication of non-adoption of emerging technologies.
Even with knowledge on the existing global scientific consensus that Genetically Modified crops/products are equally as safe as the organic ones, delayed biosafety regulation- as in Uganda’s case, only leaves the country at crossroads, overwhelmed by uncertainties and with no-one accountable for human and environmental safety with the economic boarders’ fluidity. Biosafety regulation is a double edged sword poised to guarantee safety by regulating imported GM products and produce but also to grant farmer access to transgenic (genetically modified) crop varieties containing novel traits as earlier mentioned.
Policy makers should prioritize evidence-based decision making on these critical issues and legislate on behalf and for Ugandans especially farmers and consumers. In essence, apply co-evolutionary approaches where consumer protection goes hand in hand with the indispensable agri-tech development and advancement as a tenet for agricultural-led economic development amidst population and climate change challenges.