Many people in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya decry the disappearance of their traditional organic crops. But some scientists say that genetically modified seeds could revolutionize the region.
"No one likes these GMOs. We are slowly failing to get our original organic food that we are used to," said Marie Jose Mukagasana, a vendor at the Kimironko market outside Rwanda's capital Kigali.
Here, fruits and vegetables are divided between organic and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While stall owners were reluctant to say which were more popular, Mukagasana summed up the attitude of many East Africans by questioning how GM food can be healthy.
"These days, our lifespan is slowly dwindling because we are able to eat less and less natural food. How else can you explain that these banana trees grow in six months? They are supposed to take at least two years," Mukagasana told DW.
"We are eating chicken that has been reared to eat in a matter of weeks. Everything is tasteless and that has an effect on our health."
Concerns throughout the region
Besides arguments about taste and protecting traditional ways of farming, another concern is that turning to genetically modified crops hands too much power to the seed companies, nearly all of which are headquartered abroad.
"We have to import planting material from abroad, from those who control the genes […..] This is like handing ourselves to be slaves," Ugandan lawmaker Kaps Funfaroo Hassan, who voted against a new bill to allow GM crops, told DW.
Although the bill passed parliament, Ugandan President Yuweri Museveni has declined to sign it into law, saying that concerns like Hassan's must be addressed first.
There are similar concerns in neighboring Kenya, where food security was a hot topic during last year's presidential election.
Following a severe drought in 2017, the price of maize – one of Kenya's major staples – rose to a nearly unaffordable price, which was only brought down with the aid of government subsidies. Despite the availability of drought-resistant seeds, many Kenyans are wary of GMOs which are technically banned by the government - although in reality, farmers and scientists get round the ban.
"I do not support GM products because the cost of production for farmers is already high, the introduction of GM maize […] means that farmers will have to introduce a new variety every planting season," said 25-year-old Nairobi businessman Victor Ojiambo who questions the sustainability of modified crops.
Scientists say GM crops raise income, nutrition
But local scientists believe that East Africans simply need to appreciate how GM crops could revolutionize the region.
By helping small farmers stave off insects, disease, and drought, GM crops can increase the income of individual families. Furthermore, as renowned Kenyan sustainability expert, the late Dr. Calestous Juma, tirelessly argued, GM crops also create greater stability for food systems nationwide if crops are more resistant to nature's moods.
"With genetically modified organisms, there is of course increased production […] There is also added nutritional value; for example there are iron bio-fortified beans and they are proving to be better in terms of nutrients," said Dr. Alodis Kagaba, head of the NGO Health Development Initiative in Rwanda.
Kagaba put the aversion to GM crops down to "fear of the unknown."
'Eventually we have to accept it'
As climate change brings more extreme weather patterns, GMOs could prove crucial in a country like Rwanda where 80 percent of the population is involved in the agriculture industry in some way, and the industry provides over 50 percent of the nation's exports.
Agriculture similarly dominates Kenya's economy. According to government statistics, the sector makes up twenty-five percent of GDP. However, a large swath of Kenyan farm workers do not take their products to market, but run subsistence farms to feed themselves and their families.
According to the late Dr. Juma, it is exactly these families that can benefit most immediately from GM crops. While he cautioned against overreliance on scientific solutions and the influence of foreign corporations, his research found that growing GM food or cotton had a direct correlation to improved nutrition for these families. Furthermore, it saves farmers time and money spent on covering crops with insecticide.
For Nairobi resident Lewis Munji, one day people will realize that making seeds drought-resistant isn't that big a change, "this is science…Eventually we have to accept these things," he said.
Additional reporting by Rhoda Odhiambo, Frank Yiga and Nasra Bishumba