Wednesday May 14 2014

Can GM technology improve our agricultural production?

By Michael J. Ssali

As reported earlier in this colum, our agricultural production is hampered by crop diseases, unfavourable land ownership laws and other challenges related to climate change. Rapid population growth, at 6.2 children per woman, calls for action to ensure increased food production.

The role that biotechnology can play in overcoming the challenges has been widely realised and it is the reason the legislators are debating on biotechnology and bio-safety Bill.

Government and development partners have invested in biotechnology research, including genetic modification (GM) to fight crop diseases and to make some crops grow faster or to be drought resistant.

Our duty to explore
Regionally, there is ongoing research using genetic engineering (modification) to develop drought-resistant maize while, in Uganda, it is with a view to bananas that are resistant to Banana Bacterial Wilt.

During my trip to UK last month, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and to get a copy of his earlier speech, The Role that GM Crops Could Play in Tackling the Global Challenges of Food Security, Climate Change, Hunger Alleviation and the Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture.

He said: “Since 1996, there has been a 100-fold increase in the global use of GM. Last year, GM crops were grown by 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries on 170 million hectares. That is 12 per cent of all arable land–-an area about seven times the size of UK. Farmers would not grow these crops if they did not benefit from doing so.

Governments would not license these technologies if they did not recognise the economic environmental and public benefits. Consumers would not buy these products if they did not think they were safe and cost effective.”

He concluded his speech by stating that the world population will hit nine billion soon and there will be fewer resources to feed them . So, it is our duty to explore technologies like GM because they may hold the answers to the very serious challenges ahead.