Socio-demographic characteristics of participants
About 35% of the respondents were household heads. The median age of the respondents was 34 (Table 1; Additional file 1: ). At least 40.1% (280) of the respondents had attained a secondary level of education, and 65.7% were married. The majority of respondents earned < 5000 UGX a day (about 1.34 USD), and more than half, 54.0% (377) were from urban areas. Close to 70% were subsistence farmers whose main crop was bananas (72.6%).
All the 13 key informants interviewed were male district agricultural officers, district production officers and chairpersons of farmers’ associations with an average age of 50 years. Most of them had bachelor’s degrees in Agriculture. Eighteen FDGs were conducted with an average number of 6 participants per group. The FGDs were composed of women alone, men alone, farmer groups, and consumers.
General knowledge of communities about GM crops stratified by district
Overall, only 273 (39.1%) of the 698 respondents reported that: they had ever heard of GM crops and Jinja had the highest percentage of 45.8% (125 respondents) (Fig. 2). In addition, 204 (74.7%) of the 273 respondents indicated that they had moderate–high understanding of GM crops and expressed the need for more information about GM crops. Out of the 273 respondents that reported they had ever heard of GM crops, 131 (48.0%) had eaten GM crops before, of which 63 respondents (48.1%) were from Wakiso district (Fig. 2). Furthermore, out of the 273 respondents, 237 (86.8%), the main information source for GM crops was the main stream media (radio, TV, and newspapers) (Additional file 2: Table S2). Most of the respondents (170, 62.3%) said that GM crops were harmful to their health and the environment, while 84 respondents (30.8%) considered hybrid crops to be the same as GM crops (Additional file 2: Table S2). Interestingly, 166 (60.8%) out of the 273 respondents noted that Uganda had GM crops on the market citing banana and maize (Fig. 2, Additional file 2: Table S2).
Among the respondents, 103 (37.7%) were willing to apply gene technology in food production and a similar proportion (39.2%) were willing to grow GM food crops (Fig. 3). it was worth noting that 113 (41.4%) stated that the government was strongly willing to promote GM food crops, and 102 (37.4%) believed that Uganda is strongly willing to embrace GM crops (Fig. 3). The readiness to embrace GM technology was further noted by the fact that majority of the respondents reported that they were willing to buy, eat, sell and grow GM crops (35.9–40.3%) (Fig. 3). This study found that most of the respondents (88.9%) further expressed a need for more information about GM crops. Interestingly, when asked if Uganda should ban GM crops, 70 (25.6%) of the respondents were strongly willing to support a ban on GM crops, while a similar percentage (25.6%) was strongly not willing to support the ban on GM crops (Fig. 3).
In general, key informants and FGD participants reported low knowledge levels among the community members.
“There are few people who know about these crops, it’s the truth I want to admit. Even if you conduct a survey, there are very few people that know about it. Even us that know, are not so knowledgeable but at least we know a little. But I want to assure you that very few people know about this topic. The ones who know are few, the number of people who don’t know is greater than those who know. Even those of us working in the seeds business, we don’t know much about genetically Modified crops, majority of the population are still green in regards to knowing about genetically modified crops” (KI, trader – Wakiso).
We found four key themes under knowledge of GM crops viz; distribution of knowledge, level of knowledge, understanding of GM crops and sources of GM crops.
Knowledge of the benefits of GM crops stratified by district
Most of the respondents 231 (84.6%) believed that GM crops grew faster than non-GM crops (Additional file 3: Table S3) and most of them were from Wakiso district. Most of the respondents 221 (81.0%) reported that the yields of GM crops are higher than the traditional crops. Most of them 105, (84.0%) were from Jinja. Whereas most of the respondents noted that GM crops are not as tasty (187, 68.5%), or nutritious (172, 63.0%) as traditional crops, they were more resistant to pests (137, 50.2%). This, therefore, reduces the use of pesticide, making weed and pest management very easy. Another 177 (64.8%) believed that GM crops can eradicate hunger and boost the economy (Additional file 3: Table S3). The respondents reported the benefits of GM crops which we categorized as: financial, crops productivity and resilience and resistance to diseases and pests.
“The benefits would be having crops that are more resistant to crop pests and diseases. Two, we would have high yielding varieties that are highly promoted in the market. Then maybe we would have a long-life span of crops and not having short inter-immediate crops, we would be having long inter immediate crops” (KI 14, Bushenyi)
Most of the participants noted that GM crops have a high productivity due to their fast growing and maturation rates, and high yields. These benefits are key in enhancing food security especially for families and communities with many dependents and small plots of land.
“But what I can think of as a benefit is, it will help people have adequate foods because they don’t take long and this will help to fight hunger in many areas/countries. They are all moving towards solving the problem of having shortage of food and agricultural materials given the ever-changing weather conditions” (KI-4, Jinja City)
The financial benefits from GM crops were related to reduced food prices due to bumper harvests and factory jobs as exemplified in the following excerpts.
“These urban farmers don’t worry about the seeds; they actually buy without a problem. They don’t have many acres of land for farming which is a limiting factor but they use what they have. These crops have high yields and soon there will be a lot of food sold fairly hence families will save on the money spent on food. “It can also lead to job creation, for example if a factory is developing seeds or crops, people can get jobs in such factories” (KI 03-Wakiso)
Participants hailed the GM crops for their resistance to pests and diseases. This attribute enables the GM crops to thrive even in pest and disease infested areas thus the community is able to have food despite these challenges.
“benefits would be having crops which are more resistant to pests and diseases. We have been told of some of those Kawanda (one of the areas where the National Agricultural Research Organization facilities are located) cassava, matooke and potatoes which cannot be affected by these usual diseases and they also can withstand harsh conditions like drought” (KI-10, Wakiso).
Knowledge on the risks of GM crops
About 36.3% of the respondents believed that people who are not allergic to ordinary foods would not be allergic to GM foods either. Most respondents (68.9%), mainly from Wakiso district reported that seeds of GM crops must be bought every planting season making them more expensive to farmers (Additional file 4: Table S4). Furthermore, 103 (37.7%) of the respondents reported that pests may become resistant to pest-resistant GM crops resulting in super pests (Additional file 4: Table S4). Another 45.8% (125) of the respondents reported that it was possible for weeds to acquire herbicide resistant genes from GM herbicide resistant crops and become “super-weeds”. About 65% of the respondents reported that growing the same GM foods every season may result into depletion of soil nutrients. Slightly over half (53.9%) reported that GM genes may escape to indigenous crops causing loss to indigenous germplasm (Additional file 4: Table S4). More than three quarters of the respondents believed that scientists know everything about the long-term impact of GM foods.
Participants expressed limited knowledge on the harmful effects of GM crops. The commonest risks reported were harmful effects to health, and depletion of soil fertility. GM crops were thought to be responsible for diseases such as cancers which was attributed to the spraying and the technology used to modify the crop varieties.
“I personally got worried about it, and thought that such crops can be harmful to our health and can make us develop diseases we have never heard about, I got scared, truthfully, I got scared and I thought those things that are modified can bring diseases, unless if we get enough sensitizations and explanations from scientist regarding the safety of GMO crops to our health, and their benefits. In these times we are worried about those genetically modified seeds and I’m completely scared of them” (KI-10, Wakiso)
However, most of the respondents argued that GM crops cannot cause soil degradation but rather loss of soil fertility. This could be is attributed to many other factors such as over tilling of the land.
“Soil degradation, naturally most of the soil has degraded and most of the nutrients are used up. We can’t say that GMO’s have deprived the soil but under the GM technology there are genes they can use to mine the toxins out of the soil. Issues like heavy metal contaminants produced by factories, these can be mined from the environment and this would make the soil much better.” (KII – 3).
The financial burden associated with the cost of growing and purchasing GM crops is mainly through the purchase of planting material which cannot be regrown, whereas the other costs are directed towards the purchase of pesticides.
“You talked about the cost of production, with exception of the cost of the seed. This comes back to the side of business, if the cost of the seed is high but with minimal losses. Personally, I think it’s ok because we all invest in something that will give us high yields! (KI-0 3, Wakiso District)
“Another disadvantage is GM crops require much attention, such as application of fertilizers and spraying is a must. Most of the farmers here don’t have money to invest in pest and disease management. Another disadvantage is if you plant National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) [a GM crop] matooke next to original matooke, the original will die so we don’t know what the problem is. I think because GM grows fast utilizing all the nutrients in the soil which leaves the original malnourished” (FGD-09, Consumers-Wakiso district)
Distribution of knowledge on GM crops
The knowledge on GM crop varied by age group, education status, occupation and exposure. Some of the FGDs showed that the youths and women were more knowledgeable about GM crops, because they were more involved in farming than other groups.
“Women welcome them (GM crops) more than anyone else but they do it without knowledge on how they should be handled and they end up not getting much. In most cases it’s the youth and women because they are the ones who are always in the gardens and get to know about these new crops.” (FGD15, Consumers, Bushenyi).
Some of the FGD participants also highlighted that the youths were more knowledgeable about GM crops, because they are more interested in high yields and were not as exposed to the local indigenous varieties of food crops as the elders.
“They are the youths because the local varieties we are talking about they have never eaten, and because they are growing up in this era of GM crops, it’s also because they are accustomed to big and nice-looking foods”. (FGD-13, Traders Jinja).
Most of the key informants noted that the educated and those exposed to agricultural trainings were more informed about GM crops than the rest of the population, since they have more opportunities and access to information. However, all key informants were dissatisfied with the level of knowledge on GM crops that they have due to lack of trainings and sensitization.
Level of knowledge on GM crops
Under this theme, three subthemes were derived. These were: not knowledgeable, quite knowledgeable, and very knowledgeable about GM crops. The community especially farmers and consumers reported that they were quite knowledgeable about GM crops, while the traders were more knowledgeable. Most of the key informants mentioned that they had ever heard about GM crops, but they were not well-informed about them. This was emphasized in expressions of limited knowledge, since they had never received any training on GM crops. Most of the participants in the FGDs from Wakiso reported that they were quite knowledgeable about GM crops and the least knowledgeable were from Bushenyi district.
Difference between genetically modified crops and the hybrids
Although it is not possible to visually distinguish GM from non-GM crops, many of the participants and even key informants described hybrids as GM crops.
“Yes we see some improved breeds but me as a person I cannot differentiate between modified hybrids for example from a GMO” (KI 2, Bushenyi)
Sources of information and knowledge on GM crops
Most of the participants mentioned the relevance of radio talks shows or programs in sensitizing them about GM crops. Some of the key informants attributed their knowledge to the various training opportunities through farmers’ associations.
“Media can help through radio talk shows but also brochures should be made and distributed among the farmers associations. These associations have access to the farmers. These farmers will take it home, read it over and over again may be the farmer will finally appreciate. Some areas are hard to reach and farmers have no radios. Timing the radio show when the farmer is back home might be a challenge and some places have difficulty with networks and signal” (KI 17, Bushenyi)”
Factors associated with individual knowledge towards GM crops
Being between the age of 35–44 years, not attending school, and occupation were significantly associated with knowledge towards GM crops (Table 2). Respondents between 35 and 44 years were 2.65 more likely to be knowledgeable about GM crops than those who were below 24 years (APR 2.65, 95% CI 1.13–6.22). Respondents who were not attending school had a 0.47 less likely to be knowledgeable about GM crops compared to those who were in school (APR 0.47, 95%CI 0.24–0.91).
Among the factors associated with knowledge of GM crops, five themes were identified and viz: financial, socio-cultural, education level, existing policies, and climate change. Financial factors were reported to be a barrier to the acquisition of knowledge on GM crops. This is because of the limited financial resources to facilitate trainings, sensitization workshops and demonstrations on GM crops in communities leaving many people uninformed about them. There are limited resources to facilitate research and the necessary laboratory activities that are in generating knowledge on GM crops.
“The Ministry of Agriculture has not been funded much to the extent that there are not enough extension workers. I don’t know if they don’t get enough and yet they are crucial like doctors. So, the government should fund agriculture to help in subsidizing agro-input supplies like pesticides, to make access easy for people.” (FGD 6, Jinja)
“I am willing to grow the GMO crops but the cost of production is high. So, if I get the seeds, pesticides I am willing to grow them.” (FGD 4, Jinja)
Education level and trainings: educated individuals are likely to be more knowledgeable about GM crops use because of more exposure than their uneducated counterparts. However, the participants also reported that the trainings and sensitization sessions on GM crops contributed to their knowledge on GM crops.
“Actually, there is no one who knows about GMOs, though you chose this Bushenyi with a presumption that people are well informed, but people don’t know even when you go asking these extension workers the way we talk about them is different. I think these are perception issues because: first we don’t have enough knowledge regarding GMOs because we are neither trained or well exposed even if we went to school and studied agriculture” (KI 3, Bushenyi)
Most of the participants mentioned that they were more attached to the indigenous crop varieties which they found tastier than the GM crops. This has created a bias towards GM crops and the community is not willing to acquire more knowledge on them.
“But for the consumers and farmers it has been controversial. The public doesn’t trust these genetically modified crops so they are very skeptical when you talk about GM. They prefer the traditional or original seeds and they struggle to get our original food because we want to enjoy food.” (KI 5, Jinja)
Existing policies on GM crops
With no known existing laws to govern GM crops, the policy does not allow for GM crops to be grown in the communities. This has affected the level of knowledge on GM crops.
“The policy doesn’t allow us to feed the people to test the product. So how can they take up the technology yet even feeding is a challenge because it has associated ethical issues.” (KII). “This means there is a gap either in communication or in presentation. Caution should be taken, there should not be any rushing but also there should be rationalism” (KI 3, Wakiso)
“The truth is that, I have heard about a policy/law that was intended to block modified seedlings into the country but am not sure if the government through the parliament signed that bill” (KI 8, Wakiso)
Most of the respondents reported that climate change has indirectly been a driving force towards the generation of knowledge on GM crops, since these crops can be modified to adapt to specific climates and weather conditions.
“I think moving forward because so many changes have taken place in terms of nature, let’s talk about climate change, farmers begin the season when rains come, they plant their maize and within one month the rains disappear and crops are destroyed. My final remark is that GM crops are the way to go. Given the change of things, there is population increase, land is stagnant/scarce there is no way you can avoid GM crops and climate change The way population is increasing and they need to feed but climate wont allow food to grow; so the faster we learn about and embrace GM Crops, the better for us before we run into trouble of people dying because of famine” (KI 9, Bushenyi)
Link between knowledge on GM crops and willingness to use GM crops
Eight out of 13 key informants reported that the lack of willingness to use GM crops was attributed to the limited knowledge among the expected users. This has led to the poor attitude towards GM crops, because there are several myths about them. Some key informants also expressed the fear of communities to consuming GM crops, because they are not aware of the expected side effects or outcomes. They attributed this to the limited knowledge on GM crops and poor training. Most of the FGD participants mentioned that lack of knowledge on GM crops limits their willingness to use them.
“So, I think the willingness depends on the thorough explanation that these things are safe and understood, so we would be willing to use them and like I said earlier, looking at their quality, their taste, if those things are addressed we would be willing to use them and of course at the community level, farm level, like I said these people are looking at increasing their production and productivity. So, they would be willing if all the other things are explained” (KII-AA, Bushenyi)
“If they come out and tell us about the good things and bad things about genetically modified crops we shall then embrace them but if we don’t get enough explanations/sensitization we shall remain unaware” (KI-12, Wakiso)
The respondents also mentioned that it is costly to grow GM crops, since there is need to buy inputs at the start of every season. Farmers will have to spend a lot of money on purchasing pesticides to spray the crops:
“However, the rural farmers will want to save seed from previous season to the next season. They have great challenges of affordability of seeds. The rural farmers don’t like GM because of buying seed expensively every season” (KI 5, Jinja)