Wednesday August 4 2010

Drought tolerant maize trials approved

By Joseph Miti

Scientists researching on drought tolerance maize could not hide their glee last week after the National Boisafety Committee approved the Water Efficient Maize for Africa confined field trial, a crucial step for the research. Dr Yona Baguma, Senior Research Scientist at Namulonge Crops Resources Research Institute (Nacrri) said the National Boisafety Committee (NBC) offered a permit to Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) to conduct a confined field trial (CFT) at Mobuku irrigation scheme in Kasese District.

“The decision was made and the permit was issued to the project on July 7,” Dr Baguma, who heads the Regulatory team, told the regulatory stakeholders meeting in Kampala on July 30. “We are now going to use the permit to pursue for a research permit from the office of the president and then later chase for a seed importation permit from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal industry and Fisheries,” he said as he went through the status of the progress of CFT application. He added that planting of the first trial is anticipated to be in November since the process of acquiring the two remaining permits is likely to take three months.

The approval of the maize CFT brings the number of GM confined trials to four after the cassava with brown streak virus resistance, bacterial wilt resistant banana, and GM cotton were endorsed recently.
A CFT is is a controlled introduction of a GM crop into the environment designed to prevent unauthorised, dissemination of the introduction of a GM crop into the environment, persistence of the GM variety in the environment and introduction of the crop into the food chain. During the testing, data is collected on the potential environmental impacts as part of the environmental risk assessment of the crop as well as on the agronomic performance.

Uganda is among five countries that are participating in the five-year Wema project aimed at developing maize varieties that can withstand the semi-arid conditions that characterise the greatest part of Africa. Others are Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. It is a public-private partnership project led by the national agricultural research systems in the respective countries. Other institutions involved include the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and Monsanto.

The Nairobi-based non-profit organisation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is coordinating the project while National Agricultural Research Organisation is leading the implementation of Wema activities in Uganda. National research services in the participating countries are providing their expertise in field testing and variety release and will be conducting trials of the developed maize varieties. “Wame was formed in response to a growing call by African farmers, leaders and scientists to address the devastating effects of drought on small-scale farmers. Frequent droughts lead to crop failure, hunger and poverty,” said Dr. Geoffrey Asea, WemaCountry Coordinator.

Dr Asea also the head of the cereals programme at Namulonge, says the initiative will combine conventional breeding and biotechnology to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties that will eventually be made available, royalty-free, to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. He says the new variety is expected to increase yields by 20-35per cent over current varieties under drought conditions. He says the expected increase in yields will mean an additional two million metric tonnes to feed about 21 million people during drought years. Dr Baguma says that most of the technicalities such as environment risk assessments, soil and water analysis have been done at the CFT site and reports show that the introduction of the crop into the environment will have no harm. Dr Francis N’angayo said that if the region can embrace technologies which can reduce effects of drought -a threat to food security in Africa- then risks of poor yield experienced by local farmers would be addressed.
According to Dr Asea, the project would benefit the country in accelerating the rate of maize varieties development and will provide a new range of products to Ugandan seed producers.

“To farmers, they will have access to products addressing their most challenging constraints. Adopting farmers will have to lower risk of maize failure in case of drought,” he said. Scientists also revealed that Maize CFT Handbook, which outlines standard operating procedures (SOPs) has been completed. The handbook carries information about transportation of the regulated material, storage, record keeping and establishment and management of the CFT. However, though scientists are speeding up research, commercialisation of the crop is likely to be hindered by the absence of the biosafety law. Dr Baguma therefore appealed to parliament to enact the law in interest of farmers.