Wednesday May 7 2014

Ugandan farmers could benefit from biotech gains

A scientist explains the research he is leading on developing a

A scientist explains the research he is leading on developing a Vitamin A and iron-rich banana. Globally, more developing countries are adopting biotech crops and their commercial value is increasing. PHOTO BY LOMINDA AFEDRARU 

By Lominda Afedraru

Farmers in Uganda who intend to grow biotech crops when the law is passed could benefit from the global commercial value that farmers in other parts of the world are already reaping.

In 2013, the total economic benefit farmers realised from sale of their biotech crops amounted to $116.9b out of total area of 175 million hectares of land leading to a total annual growth rate of three per cent.

The figures are contained in an annual report by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), which also indicates that more countries have adopted biotech crops since 1996, when they were first commercialised.

Increased adoption
The countries growing these crops have increased to 27; 19 of them are developing countries, which planted 14 million hectares more than the industrialised countries.

This is double seven million hectares difference between 2011 and 2012 figures. And the economic gains were $58b for the developing countries compared to $59b for the industrialised ones
The principal biotech crops grown globally include soya bean, cotton, maize and canola tested against insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and stacked traits. The latter means having a combination of the different characteristics depending on the purpose they bred for.

New crops were also adopted by farmers in 2013 such as insect-resistant eggplants in Bangladesh, Bt maize in Panama and drought-tolerant sugarcane in Indonesia. Further statistics indicate that US emerged top with an economic gain of $58.3b, followed by Asia with $31.7b, Latin America $25.4b, Africa $1.3b, and Europe at the bottom with $0.2b.

Added advantage
Also, 2013 was the second time developing countries were surpassing the Western countries in terms of acreage under biotech crops, noted Dr Charles Mugoya, programme manager at Association of Strengthening Research in Eastern and Southern Africa.

He was making a presentation based on the ISAAA report during the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), held in Kampala earlier later month.

Quoting Kenneth Quinn, president, World Food Prize 2013, who said “by 2050 the world will require as much food as it has been consumed since the beginning of civilisation”, Dr Mugoya asked: “Where will the food come from, how will it be produced and who will produce it?”

To him, using biotechnology to breed improved varieties of crops to feed the growing population is an added advantage. “To answer the question,” he said “It is the 65 per cent of Africa’s labour workforce employed by agriculture.”

Putting it in Africa’s context, Dr Mugoya noted that the numbers are declining as a result of ageing farmers because the youth are shunning agriculture for jobs in cities. “This means production will have to double, perhaps, triple using fewer and diminishing resources. This is where the option of using more powerful technologies becomes attractive.”

In adoption of biotech crops, the continent continued to make progress with South Africa benefiting from Bt maize and soya beans while Burkina Faso and Sudan increased the acreage of Bt cotton by 50 and 30 per cent, respectively.

Seven countries; Uganda, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria are currently conducting field trials in various crops. These include banana, rice, cassava, sweet potato, cowpea and sorghum.

Considering the potential for growth and increasing commercial value, Africa could stand to benefit but there are concerns about impact of biotechnology. But Dr Mugoya enumerates several benefits other than the commercial. One of them is protection of biodiversity through sustainable intensification of crop production.
For instance, globally, biotech crops planted on 1.5 billion hectares saves 13 million hectares of forest and biodiversity therein, which is usually lost every year.

Safe use
In addition, there is need for reduced usage of inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides leading to conservation of soil and water.
Dr Maxwell Otim Onapa, deputy executive director, Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, said Uganda should not be left behind but it needs to put in place mechanisms to support safe innovation and utilisation of biotechnology.

This, therefore, calls for Parliament to pass the biotechnology and biosafety Bill for the safe use of the technology that is not only applied to agriculture but other fields such as health.