Wednesday May 15 2013

Is Uganda missing out on the global market for biotech crops?

By Lominda Afedraru

If Ugandan farmers are to benefit from the global commercial value of improved crops grown using biotechnology in different parts of the world, this could be the right time.
The 2012 figures show that these crops have been rated at a market value of $14.8b (Shs38.3t) up from $13.3b (Shs34.5t) in 2011 and a global seed value of $15b (Shs38.8b).
This is according to an annual report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), which also indicates that improved crops are being grown on a total of 170.3 million hectares of land.

Being adopted
Of the 28 countries that have adopted GM crops, 20 are from the developing world with Brazil in the lead. And while these 28 countries planted commercialised GM crops, an additional 31 countries have granted regulatory approval for growing the crops for import, food and feed.

In Africa, Sudan became the fourth country to plant GM cotton after South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. For the first time, developing countries grew more biotech crops in 2012 than the industrialised countries. They accounted for 52 per cent of the global total. This is contrary to the prediction of critics, who prior to commercialisation in 1996, declared that GM crop would only be grown in industrial countries

In Africa, the technology is slowly being adopted by countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Cameroon. In these, there are ongoing field trials in different crops, ranging from banana, cassava, cotton, maize, rice to cowpea, tomato, sweet potato, sorghum and sugarcane, among others.

Increasing demand
In Uganda, scientists from National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) are conducting field trials on banana, cassava, cotton, maize, rice and sweet potatoes to address food insecurity, pests, diseases and drought.

Dr Yonna Baguma, a senior researcher at Naro, said there is an increasing fear among Ugandan scientists working on improved varieties about the increasing demand of food in both national and international markets. Therefore, the need for farmers to grow more of the improved varieties to meet the demand.

Quoting statistics from Peer Review Survey, carried out in 2010, on the positive impact of GM crops, Dr Baguma said the number of food sellers in Uganda is less than the buyers simply because most farmers are engaged in growing traditional varieties for home consumption rather than for commercial purposes.

The statistics indicate that only 12 per cent of rural household farmers are significant food sellers in both the national and regional market compared to the buyers, who comprise 66 per cent.

Farmers’ incomes
Dr Arthur Tugume, a plant virologist at Makerere University, while providing an overview of the status of biotech crops in a recent presentation, said there is a growing importance for farmers to adopt this technology in order to feed a growing population.

But in the case of Uganda, he added, farmers may be in dilemma on whether to adopt genetically modified (GM) crops due to increased negative activism yet it would lead to improved farmers’ incomes.
Some of the countries that have adopted biotechnology include US, which is leading by producing 69.5 million hectares planted with maize, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya and squash. In the same year, there is Canada, which grew a record 8.4 million hectares of GM canola.

Brazil, which is majoring in soy bean, maize and cotton on 36.6 million hectares, followed by Argentina and India covering 23.9 million hectares and 10.8 million hectares for soy bean, maize and while Canada and China are producing canola, maize, soy beans, sugar beet, cotton, papaya, poplar tomato and sweet pepper on 11.6 million hectares and 4 million hectares respectively.

Compelling testimony
The economic benefits for developing countries were at over $10b in 2011 exceeding the industrialised countries that attained $9.6b in economic gain.

A case in point is most countries involved in growing Bt cotton, which increased their income significantly by up to $250 (almost Shs650,000) per hectare and halved the number of insecticide sprays, therefore reducing exposure to pesticides.

The statistics states that the most compelling testimony to biotech crops is that during a one year period, millions of farmers in the mentioned countries made more than 100 million independent decisions to plant and replant an accumulated land of more than 1.25 billion hectares for sustainable socio-economic and environmental benefits.