The Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology is currently conducting public consultations on Bio-safety and Biotechnology bill 2012 and is expected to report back to the House in 48 days. The bill is contentious because, in current form, it will pave way for mass introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Uganda – under the pretext of saving Uganda from food insecurity! To put it into bluntly, with the passing and implementation of this bill, those who enjoy local chicken and other traditional African dishes will soon forget them. With terminator seeds in place, farmers will lose seed sovereignty- they will no longer keep seed in their granaries for next season- they will be conditioned to buy from multinational seed companies and their auxiliaries in Uganda. Farmers will in effect be consigned clients of these companies with no control or decision on seed price, quality etc. So, will Parliament enact this bill into law? We wait and see. The other big question is- Should Uganda promote Organic agriculture or go GMOs? From livelihoods and economic point of view, Uganda clearly has a comparative and competitive advantage in organic agriculture. I have held several conversations with biotechnology activists like Dr. Arthur Makara and Peter Wamboga of Science Foundation for Development (SCIFODE) who continue to tenaciously argue that humans have used the biological processes of microorganisms since 6000 years ago to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese and to preserve dairy products. They argue that GMOs are the future. It now seems most scientists, economists and some legislators have bought into this GMOs narrative. Environmentalists, conservation agriculture promoters and green advocates seem to be losing ground in Uganda. This will certainly have consequences in a near future. Whatever the benefits of GMO’s and the rosy spinning about it, I strongly believe organic food production remains Uganda’s strategic flagship and roll coaster sub sector that will deliver Ugandan farmers and economy to sustainable prosperity.
You see, organic agriculture means growing of crops without use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers and other off farm inputs. For animals, it means they are reared without the routine use of antibiotics and use of hormones. The tools and practices of organic agriculture include traditional alternatives like crop rotation, manuring and liming.
Organic farming enhances soil structures, conserves water and ensures the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
Cartels of studies indicate that demand for Uganda’s organic products has been growing considerably over the years. For example, in 20011/2012, export of organic agricultural products were estimated to be in a range of US$28.4 million having risen from US$ 6.2 million 2004/05. The organic agricultural sub sector is growing at a rate of 38% per annum. Uganda is presently estimated to have 200,000 certified organic agricultural farmers and an estimated 185,000 hectares of land certified for organic farming. The range of products being exported include fresh vegetables, fresh tropical fruits, dried fruits, coffee, tea, cotton, sesame, spices, honey and other forest products. Major market destinations for Uganda’s organic agricultural products include the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. The UNEP-UNCTAD report revealed that an average pineapple worth perhaps 200 Ugandan shillings (about 8 cents U.S.) in a local market can fetch 600 from an exporter who will package it and ship it to Europe.
Uganda retains a strategic comparative advantage due to her conducive weather conditions that support organic agriculture allowing increased production without resorting to non-agriculture inputs. It is worth noting that Uganda currently has the lowest agro-chemical usage in Africa estimated at less than 2% compared to an average of 5% for East Africa. Therefore, a robust organic agricultural sub – sector would increase income opportunity for the poor, stabilize the environment and increase export earnings.
Uganda needs to strengthen organic production potential through supportive macro and micro economic policies, adequate budget allocation, favorable tax regimes and farmer education. Standardization and certification lie at the heart of organic production and marketing. Organic products cannot sell in international market like the U.S, Europe and Japan unless they adhere to clearly set standards of quality and quantity requirements. Indeed over 85% of farmers in Uganda practice defacto organic production without certification. This means that they cannot easily sell in international markets. Uganda also has only one recognized certification body – Ugocert, which is not enough to certify the majority of farmers who practice defacto organic production.
We know that organic farming isn’t easy. Producing certified crops takes patience and much proper training in the effective use of organic techniques to battle familiar farming challenges like pests and soil degradation but future growth and opportunities are convincing in form of – in form of a wide export market. For example Data from International Trade Centre shows that organic agriculture markets are currently at US$46 billion in Europe, US$ 45 billion in the United States and US$ 11 billion in Japan. While much of that product demand originates in wealthy developed nations, it creates opportunity for Uganda to build a sustainable export business that protects natural resources while boosting the economy through the creation of long-term green jobs.Government of Uganda and all actors in the agricultural sector should rush to provide solutions to specific constraints to organic production and market access to the growing local and international market, particularly through standardization and certification. Uganda must position its self to reap from these surging opportunities. In the current form, this bill will hamstring Uganda’s competitiveness and kill jobs.
Chief Executive Officer
Agency for Transformation