The European Union's stringent laws on maximum residue levels could threaten agricultural exports from Kenya and Uganda. Maximum residue levels (MRLs) are the upper legal levels of pesticide residues in food or feed. MRLs are meant to ensure the lowest possible consumer exposure.
In 2010 the EU became jittery about MRLs in Kenya's fresh produce, although the country earned Ksh43.5 billion ($427 million) from horticulture exports to the EU in 2012.
Since 2000, Uganda's exports of organic produce have risen both in volume and in value. Between 2004 and 2012, earnings from organic agriculture exports rose from $6.2 million to $28.4 million.
With organic farming growing at nearly 40 per cent per year, and with about 200,000 certified organic agriculture farmers, Uganda risks losing its premium market, because of stringent MRL rules. An estimated 185,000 hectares in Uganda are under organic farming.
Canadian professor Matthew A Schnurr, in a study on GMOs in Uganda, showed how scientists from developing countries are being co-opted into studies to help seed multinationals make money and in the process the livelihoods of communities risk destruction.
Prof Schnurr's study quotes fears by activists that growing GMOs will undermine the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by supplanting their ecologically resilient seeds.
The study, titled Biotechnology and bio-hegemony in Uganda: Unravelling the social relations underpinning the promotion of genetically modified crops into new African markets, was based on over 70 interviews with research scientists, policy experts, lobbyists, and promotional organisations. It was conducted between 2009 and 2012.
Prof Schnurr details the promotion of GMO cotton. Traditionally, cotton in Uganda is a popular cash crop grown on mixed farms by smallholder farmers. At the time of Schnurr's research, Monsanto's Bt cotton was undergoing trials in the country.
The seed "is genetically engineered to secrete a protein-producing gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis." This makes the seeds resistant to most species of Lepidoptera, including American, pink, and spiny bollworms. However, the trials are supply rather than demand-driven.
Uganda, Schnurr said, has between 200,000 and 300,000 cotton farmers cultivating between 100,000 and 150,000ha of the crop yearly -- making it the country's third largest agricultural export.
Bollworm, which the Bt cotton trials target, is not a major ecological constraint to Uganda's cotton production. Rather, black arm disease -- a bacterial blight endemic to the region that causes leaf spots and boll rot -- has been the greatest headache to cotton farmers through most of the 20th century. Pests such as lygus, aphids, jassids, and stainers -- which Bt cotton cannot tackle -- continue to cause significant damage.
Experts said Ugandan farmers can control bollworms with minimal pesticide spraying. Therefore, Bt cotton provides a solution for a non-existent problem.
Cotton Development Organisation (CDO) officials doubt whether a technology conceived and developed for the southern US cotton fields will succeed "within the very distinct environmental constraints present in Uganda," where most farmers grow cotton on mixed-farm smallholdings.
Besides, studies in South Africa suggest that the economics of Bt cotton require vast monoculture fields to be financially viable for farmers and ginners.
There are doubts that farmers will be able to afford increased technology fees for SureGrow 125, a Bt cotton variety imported from the US. Studies in South Africa suggest that farmers will spend 30-40 per cent more than they pay for non-GM cotton seeds.
SureGrow 125 poses several challenges. Developed for temperate climates, Uganda's intense sun enables the cotton to mature faster -- in three months compared with the five to six months it takes in the US -- but its yields are lower.
Further, the American variety has determinate flowering, meaning bolls are produced at the same time. While this is ideal for mechanised picking, "Ugandan farmers prefer staggered flowering because they do all the picking by hand," said Prof Schnurr.
The CDO and cotton farmers would rather Bt-resistant genes are inserted into Ugandan cotton varieties that are already adapted to local growing conditions.
Prof Schnurr said the GMO push has more to do with strategic and economic interests of the US than with the needs of smallholder farmers. Uganda, the researcher said, "is poised to become a continental leader in agricultural biotechnology," due to a $30 million investment by the World Bank Millennium Science Initiative.
Donor funding is critical in shaping breeding programmes.
Recently, Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto said a November 2012 ban on GMO imports would be lifted "in a month or two."
Several officials from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Kenya Medical Association and biotechnology students came to the defence of genetically engineered food. They faulted the 2012 ban on GMO imports.
Civil society groups in the region say their national constitutions require them to participate in policy development. They also cite the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), which demands provision of crucial information to the public. The CPB requires public involvement in policy development and legislation before commercialising of GMOs.
Proponents of GMOs have been accused of hiding sensitive information from the public.
In July, Kenya's National Biosafety Authority made a call for environmental release trials of GMO maize. The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation and the US-funded AATF can now officially extend trials to include growing it on farmers' fields under the national performance trials.
GMO crops are being field-tested at various Kalro field stations, namely, Wema at Kiboko; virus-resistant transgenic cassava at Alupe; vitamin A-enhanced cassava at Alupe; bio-fortified sorghum at Kiboko and virus-resistant cassava at Mtwapa.
Food rights lobbyists in the EA region said more needs to be done to debunk the myth that GMOs will ensure food security and alleviate poverty.
"There is limited public awareness on GMOs," said Sabrina Nafisa Masinjila, outreach and advocacy officer at the African Centre for Biodiversity in Tanzania and Abdallah Mkindi, the co-ordinator of the Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, in response to a question on the level of public awareness on GMOs in the region's largest country.