Gordon Hull / Philosophy and Religious Studies / UNC Charlotte
Sub-Saharan Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, face chronic hunger and food insecurity. Despite steady gains since the end of Idi Amin’s dictatorship, and according to data collated by the World Resources Institute, the average Ugandan had about 600 fewer calories available per day to eat than the global average, and the average annual variation in food supply (caused by factors such as drought, displacement of people, etc.) is almost double the global average. Many people thus live at a food-subsistence level, and can easily and precipitously be plunged into extreme hunger. Cereal imports and food aid account for almost 6% of total consumption. At the same time, agriculture is by far the most important part of the Ugandan economy: in 1990, agricultural workers comprised almost 85% of the total workforce, and accounted for almost 43% of the country’s total economic activity. Changes in the agricultural sector, then, affect most of the population, and not only in terms of food supply.
The depth of Uganda’s poverty is striking. According to Iowa State University’s Center for Sustainable Rural Life:
- 82% of the population lives on less than one dollar per day
- 40% lack reliable access to sufficient healthy food
- 39% of children under the age of five are stunted
- The CIA estimates that 35% of the population lived below the poverty line as of 2001 (CIA Factbook).
(Although these numbers are bleak, they are significantly better than sub-Saharan African averages, and the Ugandan economy has been growing steadily, achieving a 5% real growth rate in 2006 (CIA Factbook)).
The political situation in Uganda is unstable, and the country has been involved in two devastating recent conflicts:
- The Second Congo War – a conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) that, although almost invisible to Westerners, cost the lives of an estimated 3.8 million people from 1998-2003.
- Uganda also faces an ongoing insurgency in its northern provinces by the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” a group accused of widespread torture, rape, abduction, and use of child soldiers. Fighting between the LRA and the Ugandan government has resulted in somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 million internally displaced persons (CIA Factbook).
Against this already challenging background, Uganda now faces a new problem: a rapidly spreading bacterial banana wilt (banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW)). This banana wilt has devastating effects on affected plants and areas. A study of its effects in one district since 2001 showed that, among other things (this data is verbatim from the executive summary of Community Coping Mechanisms):
- 97% of respondents report a reduction in production of between 65% and 80%;
- Labour needs to produce bananas have reduced by 70%;
- Number of Matooke traders in local markets have declined by 50% or more;
- Volumes of banana being marketed have reduced by 75% while the price has increased 50%;
- Changes in uses of banana have been reported in 90% of households, many socio-cultural uses of banana having declined sharply;
- Coping strategies of households include reducing food intake, reducing external expenditures on education, health and clothing, changing crop production (especially to annual crops), switching to banana cultivars that are less susceptible to the disease, switching goods for transportation or marketing, abandoning and selling processing businesses, migration to other areas.
In sum, BXW presents a serious threat to the food security of millions of people. It also presents a policy conundrum: one way to combat the effects of BXW would be to genetically engineer a resistant strain of banana. In May of 2015, Uganda’s parliament passed a law enabling the development of GMO bananas (there already is one that is resistant to BXW), as well as GM coffee and other modified crops. The bill was and is controversial, as anti-GM activists have lined up against pro- activists in familiar ways. Additionally, open data groups are reporting having educated farmers in how to avoid BXW without any technology more basic than cellphones (which almost everyone has).
2. History of BXW and GMO Bananas
The debate over GMO bananas in Uganda goes back at least 10 years. Andrew Leonard (formerly of Salon) describes the possible scenarios and some arguments both ways in the following piece, which you should read:
“A Plague on African Bananas,” Salon.com, Oct. 11, 2006.
Further points can be found in Clark, Mugabe and Smith (cited below, but you don’t need to read them), who note that (p. 22):
- As of 2004, there were no GMOs in Uganda
- Ugandan officials expressed concern about seeding problems with Monsanto’s GM cotton
- The issue does not seem just to be the presence of GMOs in the cotton – it’s that the domestic cotton crop is long-staple lint whereas GMO cotton is short-staple. Long-staple has a higher export value to Europe; thus, contamination would lower the value of the cotton, independently of concerns about the presence of GMO’s.
- Uganda lacks containment and confinement facilities for evaluation of GMO’s, and other aspects of a regulatory infrastructure (e.g., institutional biosafety committees, p. 23) are also lacking.
3. Preliminary Questions
- To what extent do Western countries (like the U.S.) have a moral responsibility to address food insecurity (or other basic needs) in developing countries? In considering this question, you might want to consider (a) the question abstractly, (b) the question in light of past colonialism, (c) the question in light of agricultural globalization, and (d) what role the government of the U.S. ought to play in promoting the agendas of companies like Monsanto.
- Is genetically modified food morally acceptable (in general)? Construct an argument both for and against the permissibility of developing and using genetically modified food.
- Ideal vs. non-ideal theory: On the basis of Leonard’s analysis, what reasons are there to think that the introduction of GM bananas in Uganda might be a special case? What ethical principles (if any) warrant treating this case differently?
- Should a country be allowed special rules for indigenous GMO but not for imports?
- Who are some of the relevant stakeholders in determining the appropriate decisions? What are their presumed interests?
4. The Precautionary Principle
Uganda has both signed and ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (May 24, 2000 and Nov. 30, 2001, respectively). Among other things, the Protocol contains language which affirms the “precautionary approach” to the introduction of GM organisms. The Protocol refers specifically to Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The Principle (which I’ll call the “precautionary principle,” “PP” for short) states:
PP: In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
The Cartagena Protocol refers to this Principle in several places, and adds a clause about risk assessment which might serve to clarify it (“URA,” for “using risk assessment”).
URA: Lack of scientific knowledge or scientific consensus should not necessarily be interpreted as indicating a particular level of risk, an absence of risk, or an acceptable risk.
Uganda, then, officially subscribes to both PP and RA.
Consider the following questions
- State in your own words what you think PP implies as a decision procedure. How, in particular, should one operationalize a “lack of scientific certainty” – what burden of proof should take the place of “certainty?”
- How might one operationalize the first clause (about “according to their capabilities”)? What if anything does this imply about import of GMO’s into developing countries?
- How do risk assessment and PP differ as decision procedures? What does each seem to value most highly, and how do their procedures serve to protect that value?
- How might URA be taken as a clarification of PP?
- How should PP and URA guide the development of Uganda’s regulatory infrastructure? What results do they give on the question of the introduction of GM bananas? Of GM cotton?
5. Democracy and Public Science
Consider the following passage:
Science in general and genetic engineering in particular are not evolving in a sociopolitical vacuum. The African public and politicians have (or should have) a direct interest in scientific advances and technological developments associated with genetic engineering, yet they are not participating in the debate. In many countries of the region there are obstacles to citizens’ participation in the debate on the impacts of GM crops and the potential role of genetic engineering in solving food insecurity. Considerable institutional space in the debate has been taken by isolated groups of non-governmental organizations opposed to GM crops and purporting to speak for the African rural poor, and groups of scientists who espouse the benefits of the new technology for the poor. It is unlikely that the two groups—anti and pro GM crops groups have the attention of millions of farmers in Africa. The general public and farmers in particular are not informed about the nature of the technology, its potential benefits and risks, and rarely do they participate in deciding on what crops or problems biotechnology research and development should focus on ….
With the intensifying debate on GM crops, confusing counter claims from pro- and anti-GM activists, and often passive reactions by African governments, the public is likely to lose confidence in the scientific enterprise and overall decision-making authorities. What are required in the region today are processes that will legitimately bring the voices of the public to inform and change the focus and content of the current debate. (Clark, Mugabe and Smith, 29-30)
And discuss the following questions based on it:
- What normative value underpins the argument? How might this value in turn be justified?
- What argument is made in the text for why this normative value should be supported? Is this a good reason?
- Is the value in question one of importance for setting science policy? Construct an argument both ways.
- To what extent should “scientific” concerns drive policy, and should they override public concerns, when those concerns are clearly not based on any scientific evidence?
- Agriculture and Food: Uganda. World Resources Institute/Earth Trends – Country Profiles (visited 3/20/07)
- CIA. The World Factbook – Uganda (visited 3/20/07)
- Clark, Norman, John Mugabe and James Smith. Governing Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa: Building Public Confidence and Capacity for Policy-Making. Africa Center for Technology Studies, 2004.
- Community Coping Mechanisms in Response to the Banana Bacterial Wilt: Effects in Mukono District. International Development Research Center, 2006.
- Leonard, Andrew. “A Plague on African Bananas,” Salon.com, Oct. 11, 2006