02 Jan

Measuring Attitudes and Intentions to Adopt GM Matooke Banana in Uganda

In October 2017 the Ugandan Parliament passed the National Biosafety Act which granted the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology the authority to regulate the development and release of GM crops in Uganda. The bill, which has since been returned to parliament for revisions, marks a clear step towards commercialization of GM technology in the region.

Uganda’s experimental program with agricultural biotechnology is now one the largest in Africa, buoyed by significant investments in infrastructure, experimental capacity, and personnel training in the last decade, largely sourced from the United States Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Schnurr, 2013). The hallmarks of Uganda’s experimental program are GM versions of the East African Highland Banana, known locally as matooke—the country’s primary carbohydrate staple. Matooke bananas are eaten before they are ripe; generally they are peeled, boiled, and then roasted over a fire to produce a thick mash. They provide an estimated 30% of Uganda’s daily caloric intake and occupies the greatest proportion (38%) of utilized agricultural land across the country (Kalyebara, Wood, & Abodi, 2007). The senior research scientists in charge of the National Agricultural Research Organisation’s banana experimental program predicts that GM matooke could be ready for commercialization as soon as 2018 (Interview with Research Scientist #2, May 18, 2014). Despite this momentum, there is still significant uncertainty about the impact of commercialization of GM crops among African farmers. A recent study by Schnurr and Addison  (2017) aims to increase our understanding of which socioeconomic variables influence farmer decision-making around GM carbohydrate staple crops in Africa.

According to the 2008/09 Uganda Census of Agriculture, .6% of all matooke bananas produced in the country were located in three major growing regions—eastern, central, and south-western. These also represent three distinct agroecological zones. The country’s matooke farmers are split unevenly between the three growing regions, with 15% of all matooke farmers located in the east, 35% are located in the central region, and 50% are located in the southwest. Schnurr and Addison (2017) created a stratified random sample to generate a dataset that reflected this geographical distribution. They used a methodological approach that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative methods in order to measure farmer attitudes towards GM crops and their likelihood of adopting GM technology. Findings from this study suggest these technologies are more likely to be adopted by the heavily marketized farmers in the southwestern region, whereas the central region is most resistant. They hypothesize that a mix of historical and geographical factors contributes to these contrasting regional perspectives. Their findings also suggest that contrary to previous research that suggested poorer households are more likely to be interested in purchasing GM planting materials than wealthier ones (Edmeades and Smale, 2006), they found that larger farmers are more likely to adopt than smaller farmers. This finding regarding farm size—and by extension, wealth—likely reflects the possibility that larger farmers are more market-oriented than their smaller counter-parts, producing the bulk of their matooke for sale rather than home consumption. These  results  resonate  with  studies  conducted elsewhere that similarly found that larger, more affluent farmers  are  better  positioned  and  more  willing  to  take on the risks associated with the adoption and implementation  of  new,  improved  varieties  (Arechavala-Vargas, Díaz-Pérez,  &  Huerta-Ruvalcaba,  2007;  Consmuller, Beckmann, & Petrick, 2010; Skevas, Kikulwe, Papadopoulou, Skevas, & Wesseler, 2012). They also found that membership in a farmers’ association, planting improved varieties, and existing relationships with extension agents all increase the likelihood of adoption.

According to Schnurr and Addison (2017), these results underscore the need for targeted policies that are geared toward meeting the needs of those farmers who lack these resources, and the potential risk that these most vulnerable farmers could miss out on the potential benefits associated with GM versions of African carbohydrate staple crops. More generally, these findings underline the need for agricultural policies and experimental programs that recognize the stratified and differentiated patterns of attitudes and adoption that will follow the commercialization of GM versions of African carbohydrate staple crops.


Arechavala-Vargas, R., Díaz-Pérez, C., & Huerta-Ruvalcaba, J.P.(2007). Genetically modified maize in Mexico: Varied responses to technology. In Proceedings from Atlanta conference on science, technology, and innovation policy 2007. Atlanta, GA.

Consmuller, N., Beckmann, V., & Petrick, M. (2010). An econometric analysis of regional adoption patterns of Bt maize in Germany. Agricultural Economics, 41(3-4), 275-284.

Edmeades, S., & Smale, M. (2006). A trait-based model of the potential demand for a genetically engineered food crop in a developing country. Agricultural Economics, 35, 351-361.

Kalyebara, M.R., Wood, S., & A bodi, P.N. (2007). Assessing the potential impact of selected technologies on the banana industry in Uganda. In M. Smale & W.K. Tushemereirwe (Eds.), An economic assessment of banana genetic improvement and innovation in the Lake Victoria region of Uganda and Tanzania (Research Report No. 155, pp.141-153). Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Schnurr, M.A. (2013). Bio-hegemony and biotechnology in Uganda: Unraveling the strategies used to promote genetically modified crops into new African markets. Journal of Peasant Studies, 40(4), 639-658.

Schnurr, M.A., & Addison, L. (2017). Which variables influence farmer adoption of genetically modified orphan crops? Measuring attitudes and intentions to adopt GM matooke banana in Uganda. AgBioForum, 20(2), 133-147.

Skevas, T., & Wesseler, J. (2009). Coping with ex-ante regulations for planting Bt maize: The Portuguese experience. AgBioForum, 12 (1), 60-69.

Skevas, T., Kikulwe, E.M., Papadopoulou, H., Skevas, I., & Wesseler, J. (2012). Do European Union farmers reject genetically modified maize? Farmer preferences for genetically modified maize in Greece. AgBioForum, 15(3), 242-256.

29 Dec

Uganda’s National Biosafety Act

After years of parliamentary debate and scrutiny, the Ugandan Parliament finally passed the long-awaited National Biosafety Bill on October 4th 2017. It follows the Biotechnology and the Biosafety Policy which was adopted in 2008. The National Biosafety Bill was marked as a step forward for proponents of GM technology as it set to establish a regulatory framework that would govern the development of GM technology in Uganda once signed into law. As Barbara Mugwanya, the Coordinator at Uganda Biosciences Information Center described “[p]assage of the Bill will allow scientists to conduct testing of the biotech crops in various relevant agro-ecological zones that are closer to the farmers” (Muheebwa, 2017). This development gave scientists the green light to begin planning open field trials and commercialization.

The Bill, which still needed to be signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, designated the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNSCT) as the competent authority for biosafety and biotechnology as well as an advisory committee and registrar. The UNSCT would have the authority to approve the development, testing and use of GMOs in Uganda. While this framework gave technology developers a clear roadmap towards commercialization, the excitement was short-lived.  In December 2017 President Museveni declined to sign the bill into law. In a letter to the speaker of the house he cited several issues with the bill in its current form. Notably, he cited concerns that GM crops might contaminate indigenous crops and that the bill favours patent holders rights over local communities – stating ‘this is wrong’ (The Daily Monitor, 2017). The bill has been returned to parliament for revisions and amendments.


Muheebwa, H. (2017, November 3). “Uganda Parliament Passes Bill To Promote Use Of Genetically Modified Materials, Biotech” IP Watch. https://www.ip-watch.org/2017/11/03/uganda-parliament-passes-bill-promote-use-genetically-modified-materials-biotech/

The Daily Monitor (2017, December 28). “Museveni declines to sign GMO bill into law”. Business Daily. https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/news/ea/uganda/Museveni-declines-to-sign-GMO-bill-into-law/4003148-4244100-v66gbrz/index.html

01 Dec

Why study Gender and GM crops?

One item that was raised towards the end the conference at Dalhousie University in September 2015, was unanswered questions surrounding the impact that gender could play on the success of GM technology, and more specifically what outcomes these new agricultural technologies could pose for women farmers. Women are key players in developing economy agriculture yet men often dominate decision making and often occupy more advantageous roles. Women tend to have less land security relative to men, and significantly less access to inputs and resources such as credit. These differences may impact or even determine their ability or decision to adopt new agricultural technologies like GM crops (Doss, 2001). As women make up at least 40% to 50% of the agricultural workforce in sub-Saharan Africa (Palacios-Lopez et al., 2015), and hold different rights, role and responsibilities relative to men it is crucial to investigate underlying social inequities between men and women that could play a critical role in shaping the outcomes associated with the introduction of GM crops.

Currently, there is scant empirical evidence that attempts to assess the impacts of GM crops on gendered dynamics. Just as farmer preferences largely shape their likelihood of adopting GM crops, some evidence suggests adoptions rates of GM crops may vary between male and female farmers, in part because women lacked access to information on proper cultivation techniques. Other evidence suggests the introduction of GM technology may also have important impacts on labour. But these cumulative findings demonstrate that the outcomes are highly contextual. For example in India (Subramanian & Qaim, 2010), Uganda (Addison & Schnurr, 2016) and Pakistan (Kouser et al., 2017) the introduction of GM crops increased the time and labour burdens for women farmers. In the case of Pakistan, Kouser et al. (2017) framed this increased demand as advantageous as additional employment income was available for the poor and women farmers, whereas Schnurr and Addison (2016) suggest this increased demand may lead to intensifying unpaid family labour instead of hiring new labourers. Conversely, research in Colombia (Zambrano, et al., 2011), Burkina Faso (Falck-Zapeda & Zambrano, 2013) and South Africa (Gouse et al., 2016) found that GM technology actually reduced labour demands for women. These differing and limited accounts indicate significantly more research is needed to understand the evolving relationship between gender and GM crops.

We’d love to hear comments about how best go about addressing this crucial gap.



Addison, L., & Schnurr, M. (2016). Growing burdens? Disease-resistant genetically modified bananas and the potential gendered implications for labor in Uganda. Agriculture and Human Values, 33(4), 967-978.

Doss, C. (2001). Designing agricultural technology for African women farmers: Lessons from 25 years of experience. World Development, 29(12), 2075-2092.

Falck-Zapeda, J.B. & Zambrano, P. (2013). Gender Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops in Developing Countries. Final Technical Paper. Washington, DC: International Development Research Centre.

Gouse, M., Sengupta, D., Zambrano, P., & Zepeda, J.F. (2016). Genetically Modified Maize: Less Drudgery for Her, More Maize for Him? Evidence from Smallholder Maize Farmers in South Africa. World Development, 83, 27-38.

Kouser, Abedullah, & Qaim. (2017). Bt cotton and employment effects for female agricultural laborers in Pakistan. New Biotechnology. Volume 34 (25), 40–46.

Palacios-Lopez, A., Christiaensen, L., & Kilic, T. (2015). How much of the labor in African agriculture is provided by women? Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.

Subramanian, A., & Qaim, M. (2010). The Impact of Bt Cotton on Poor Households in Rural India. The Journal of Development Studies, 46(2), 295-311.

Zambrano, P., Maldonado, J.H., Mendoza, S.L., Ruiz, L., Fonseca, L.A., Cardona, I. (2011). Women Cotton Farmers Their Perceptions and Experiences with Transgenic Varieties A Case Study for Colombia. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.

01 Dec

The Canadian Journal of Development Studies

In 2016 the Canadian Journal of Development Studies published a special section that asked: Can genetically modified (GM) crops help the poor? This section was born out of conversations held between 30 experts at the 2015 GMOs and Poverty Conference at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this section, three contributors: Dr. Matthew Schnurr (Associate Professor at Dalhousie University and conference organizer), Dr. Brian Dowd-Uribe (Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco), and Dr. Melinda Smale (Professor at Michigan State University) offer a balanced view that aims to interrogate our understanding of GM technology, poverty, and current evidence before us.

All three articles are available, open access through the Canadian Journal of Development Studies.

01 Dec

GPS Policy Brief

The Genome Canada Policy Brief ‘Can Genetically Modified Crops Help the Poor? Options for Canada’s Foreign Policy’ by Dr. Matthew Schnurr and Dr. Stuart Smyth is now available on the Genome Canada’s website.

The policy brief builds on conversations held at the Genome, Public Policy, and Society (GPS) session hosted by the GMOs and Poverty Conference at Dalhousie University in September 2015. The event brought together an interdisciplinary team of academics and policy makers for an open discussion on a wide range of regulatory issues and challenges facing Canadian policy-makers surrounding GM technology. The brief surveys the implications of this emerging debate for Canadian policy-makers in order to help the Canadian government to consider whether to support the adoption of GMOs as part of their agricultural development strategies. The insights gleaned during the GPS session informed the five policy options presented for consideration: an ‘all in’ approach robustly supporting GM crops; a partnership approach focusing on the needs of smallholder farmers; a ‘precaution through experience’ approach emphasizing context-specific systems, community engagement and risk management; a participatory farmer-led approach based on a demand-driven model of experimentation; and a holistic approach focusing on underlying causes of food insecurity rather than technological solutions.

25 Sep

Can GM Crops Help the Poor? A Conference Primer

In a few days, experts from around the world will converge in Halifax, Nova Scotia to discuss the potential for genetically modified (GM) crops to help the poor. Here is an overview of the key events and some reflections around what we hope to learn.
On October 1, the conference opens with a Keynote event, in which Raj Patel and Jennifer Thompson will debate the question of whether or not GM crops can help the poor. As a global issue, GM crops remain a polarizing topic. One objective of this conference is to serve as a bridge between the deeply divided “pro” and “con” scholarship on GM crops, in order to facilitate a deeper and more nuanced understanding. While we anticipate that these speakers will present contrasting perspectives, areas of convergence or common ground will be of particular interest.
On October 2, a series of intensive discussions ensue, featuring a diverse range of participants. The first panel, entitled “Can First-Generation GM Crops Help the Poor? An Examination of the Empirical Record,” brings together Elizabeth Fitting, Melinda Smale and Brian Dowd-Uribe to discuss the track record of first-generation GM crops. Each panelist specializes in a different discipline and area of the world. Given this global and interdisciplinary orientation, we should gain insight into the specific factors that determine how and if these technologies alleviate poverty. A key question is can we generalize about the impact of first-generation technologies, or are local specificities and other variables more important? The next panel of the day, entitled “Can New-Generation GM crops Help the Poor? New Technologies and New Approaches,” features another diverse and interdisciplinary panel with Glenn Stone, Rachel Schurman and Jennifer Thompson. A major question for this panel is what are the main differences between these new GM technologies and their predecessors? Does the “public-private” partnership model through which many GM staple crops are being developed and made available license-free to small-scale farmers, constitute a meaningful departure from the modes of dissemination with first-generation GM crops? The remainder of the day focuses on how the insights garnered from these panels might be applied to Canada’s policy towards GM crops and international development in a special session sponsored by Genome Canada. Key questions in this regard are discussed in the policy document available from our website.
On October 3, there will be a junior scholar workshop, featuring Laura Escobar, Kristal Jones, Amalia Leguizamon and Hanson Nyantakyi-Frimpong. These scholars are engaged in cutting edge research that is helping to set the agenda for future social science research into GM crops. The conference concludes with a panel focused on the question “where do we go from here?” The goal is to discern the key findings from the conference and to chart a course for future collaboration and research.
Overall, this conference represents a unique opportunity for an interdisciplinary sharing of ideas that can generate new insight into whether or not GM crops can help the poor.

21 Sep

GPS Brief: Genome, Public Policy, and Society session

Click to download: GPS Policy Brief – First Draft (PDF 166kb)

Attached is a draft version of the brief that will anchor the Genome, Public Policy, and Society session on the Friday afternoon of the Can Genetically Modified Crops Help the Poor event. The intent of the Genome Canada sponsored GPS session is to examine the question of whether and how Canadian foreign policy should utilize GMOs as part of its international development platform. The brief – co-authored by Matthew Schnurr of Dalhousie University and Stuart Smyth at the University of Saskatchewan – aims to survey the various policy options available. The draft brief is not intended to reflect our personal views as author or the view of Genome Canada. Nor is it intended to seek consensus among participants or recommend any one option over another. Rather, the objective is for the brief to remain neutral, leaving open the policy positions that policy-makers and stakeholders may eventually use or adapt, informed by considerations contained in the brief.

The GPS session itself will open with a brief introduction from the authors, followed by remarks from each of the 5 invited commentators (see schedule for full list), at which point we’ll open up the discussion to the broader group. In the weeks following the event, Stuart and I will aim to revise the draft brief based on the comments received. The final version of the policy brief will be published on the Genome Canada website.

We look forward to receiving any and all feedback, both from attendees as well as interested others.

01 Sep

The curious case of GMOs in Kenya

The big news coming out of Kenya this month is that the country is poised to repeal a long-standing ban on GMO cultivation. Deputy Prime Minister William Ruto – who as former Minister of Agriculture was one of the major proponents of utilizing GMOs in Kenya – made the formal announcement in early August. A few weeks earlier, the National Biosafety Authority, the focal point for all matters concerning agricultural biotechnology, issued a formal request for comments on an application for the commercial release of Genetically Modified maize, which has completed its mandated experimental trials. It seems very likely that GM maize will be in Kenya by the end of this year.

Kenya’s history with GMOs is unique. The country passed a very permissive biosafety bill in 2009, and started a series of confined field trials soon after. Many observers thought Kenya was positioned to become the fourth country in Africa to commercialize GMOs, after South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Egypt.

But everything changed in November 2012. During that period the country had two Health Ministers (a product of the power-sharing agreement stemming from the previous election that was marred by violence), both of whom suffered bouts of cancer at around the same time. After returning from treatment abroad, one of these Ministers became alarmed by the much-debated research paper by French scientist Gilles Seralini (since retracted and republished in another journal), which suggested that rats fed GM maize developed higher rates of cancer. The Minister presented her concerns to her Cabinet colleagues at a meeting in November 2012, who decided to implement a ban against any commercialization of GM products until these concerns had been addressed.

The Cabinet decision caught many by surprise. It was challenged on legal grounds (critics argued that the Cabinet overstepped its bounds by issuing a ban, which falls within the mandate of the National Biosafety Authority) as well as scientific ones (critics argued that the ban was based on irrational fears rather than empirical evidence). GM supporters have worked hard to have the ban repealed, launching significant media campaigns and engaging in direct outreach to politicians. Now it appears that Kenya is again ready to contemplate the possibility of becoming the next African country to commercialize GM crops.

27 Aug

Labour, Gender and GM Crops in Uganda

Optimism around the potential for GM crops to help the poor is particularly pronounced in Uganda. Attention is focused on GM versions of matooke (cooking bananas) as an agricultural technology capable of uplifting the poor and driving rural development. Matooke is the primary staple food in Uganda, but yields have declined sharply in recent years, owing in large part to the spread of crop diseases like banana bacterial wilt, fusarium wilt and black sigatoka. A series of experimental trials is underway investigating matooke that is genetically modified to resist these diseases. Promoters of GM matooke argue that all farmers stand to benefit from these new varieties. Increased yields should benefit both subsistence and market-oriented producers: subsistence producers will have more eat, while commercial growers will have more to sell. Moreover, matooke reproduces clonally – meaning that once purchased farmers will own its offspring and not be subject to restrictive intellectual property regimes. Thus, if any GM crop is likely to benefit the poor, it should be matooke.

Yet, this optimistic narrative of how GM crops will benefit Ugandan farmers is complicated by the impact the technology may have on labour practices. A disease resistant variety would reduce the labour required for managing diseases, but increase the labour needed to harvest matooke (since a GM variety would reduce yield losses due to diseases). But given the fact that Ugandan farmers generally expend minimal labour on disease control, it is probable that the additional labour needed to harvest higher yields will outweigh the labour saved in disease control. Hence, disease resistant GM varieties of matooke could increase the overall labour required to cultivate the crop.

Research undertaken over the past few years suggests that farmers in different parts of the country would address these demands in different ways. We found that labour practices on matooke farms vary significantly by region. In the central region, farmers tend to produce matooke on a subsistence basis, and rely mostly upon family labour. There is a relatively rigid gender division of labour, which associates women the certain tasks, including weeding and harvesting. In this setting, male-headed households would likely try to intensify the labour of their wives and other dependents, both because harvesting is often defined as a female task, and because of their difficulty affording hired labour. In the southwest, farmers are more likely to hire additional labour – these farmers are more connected to markets than their counterparts in the central region, and wages for farm labour are lower here than in the central.

The claim that GM staple crops will be “scale neutral” in Africa is challenged by a focus on labour and gender. In the Ugandan case, a disease-resistant variety could just as easily exacerbate divisions within producer households and across regions as it could help the poor. This is not to say that GM technology does not deserve a place in African agriculture. Rather, it is a reminder that any new technology needs to be delivered as part of a much wider set of development initiatives – such as providing farmers with better access to extension officers, education, credit and markets – while working to enhance gender equality throughout the continent.

19 Aug

Land Reform as an Alternative to GM Crops?

One of the most significant legacies of settler-colonialism in Africa is unequal and racialized control over land. This is especially pronounced in countries like South Africa and, until the early 2000s, Zimbabwe.   Over fifteen years ago, Zimbabwe embarked on a radical program “fast-track” land reform.   This land reform has transferred roughly 4,500 formerly white owned estates – representing 20 percent of the total land area in Zimbabwe – to around 170,000 black smallholder households. While agricultural production declined dramatically in the immediate aftermath of resettlement, recent studies suggest that production for many crops – particularly food crops – now exceed pre-land reform levels.

Alongside its promotion of land reform, Zimbabwe has maintained firm opposition to the use of GM crops on the resettled farms or anywhere in the country. In the early 2000s, Zimbabwe (along with Zambia) made international headlines when the country refused food aid from the United States because of its GM content. in recent years however, Zimbabwe has become increasingly reliant on imported maize from South Africa, much of which is GM. A growing set of interests within the country is urging the government to allow field trials and commercialization of GM crops.

In the absence of new breeding technologies, farmers in Zimbabwe are making the most of their new access to land.   I recently visited a resettlement area in the south-eastern part of the country. In the colonial period and up to 2000, the area was used for cattle ranching and game farming because it was considered ill suited for agriculture due to low rainfall. But today farmers are growing a multitude of crops, including maize, millet and cassava as staples, as well as a variety of nuts, fruits and vegetables.  Although the area was experiencing a drought during my visit, farmers were still food secure (you can see some photos of the drought stricken area on the homepage slideshow).   Farmers I spoke to claimed that while their maize crop performed poorly, they still harvested abundant cassava and millet, which require comparatively little water.

Zimbabwe’s land reform represents a potential alternative to dominant forms of agricultural intensification being prescribed across Africa. The simple policy of enhancing peoples’ access to and control over land can have an immediate impact in terms of increasing food security and lowering poverty.   At the same time, one can argue that GM crops might enhance the gains of land reform even further – for example, farmers in the area I visited could probably benefit from drought resistant varieties or water-efficient maize. In this regard, the new public-private partnership built around Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) seems particularly promising. The program aims to combine drought tolerance and insect resistance into new GM maize varieties, which would be available royalty free for smallholders in Africa. The case of Zimbabwe underlines the difficulty of disentangling the complex relationships between land reform and new breeding technologies.