Communication lapses responsible for misunderstanding on GMOs

When activists demonstrated against GMO ban by the government in 2015. [File, Standard]

The ongoing pull and push between proponents and opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is an indictment of government communication practice as much as it is a genuine concern on the health implications of GMOs.

The case of the HIV/Aids pandemic in the 1990s should remind all and sundry what a relegation of duty it is for scientists and government to stay with facts on the one side while the public wrestles with speculation, opinions, lies and propaganda on the other.

A government-induced silence on the HIV/Aids in the 1980s created an information vacuum which, as expected, was filled with the myths that Aids was a foreign disease of the sexually - loose urbanites, tourists, prostitutes', not the rural folks.

The government dilly-dallied, unable to do more than denying the reality, thus sustained, even inadvertently fueled the lies, propaganda and prejudice. By the time the government finally opened up, many had died.

The Ministry of Health proactively avoided a repeat of that indecision in 2020 in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic. The Health ministry's performance was remarkable for debunking paternalism and empowering the people by walking with them and putting them at the centre of their own survival.

On the contrary the GMOs have been here for 25 years. The government and the scientists were all along quiet. But the lifting of the ban two weeks ago has sparked a debate and exposed a highly rigid and unprepared government communication service which, in its strategies, had disinherited the public from any shared messaging.

In its reaction to save face and the situation, and, perhaps make up for its indecisiveness, the government has turned the GMO messaging chaotic. This failure must be seen in the broader context of African governments, that as a matter of great urgency, have to hasten to unlearn dispossessing the people of the power for self-determination by keeping them as subjects of state centric development.

No wonder the message from the Ministry of Agriculture is overwhelmed and actually lost to daily and distractive news of the sharp differences among scientists, civil society and government. These are the controversies people who are dying for answers on how to bring food on the table are forced to eat from the agricultural and food scientists with the power of substituting lies with facts.

Milestones in agricultural research such as pest and drought resistant crops, better nutrition, longer shelf life crops, biofortification, storability of the crop, are all gains of GMOs. That needed to be communicated to the farmers long before the climate change effects, leave alone the lifting of the GMO import ban.

But as the country acknowledges the urgent need for more food, the same farmer who is to help the country meet this objective, is bombarded with the news, not on innovation and alternative approaches to food production, but deafening noises generated by pro and anti-GMO lobbies and now on gene-editing controversies.

In 60 years of independence, governments in Africa have not been impressive at all in their aligning science with survival struggles of the ordinary people. Ministers may talk of schools built, pupils in school, homesteads with piped water but little about qualitative transformation of ordinary lives. What matters is not the many irrigation schemes the government has funded; it is how convinced farmers are about GMOs.