FARM TRENDS: The biotech factor

Wednesday January 27 2010

MPs Charles Nagabirano (L), Jalia Bintu

MPs Charles Nagabirano (L), Jalia Bintu (Masindi Women Representative) and Ruth Kavuma (R) inspecting genetically modified cotton at Mubuku confined field trial. Scientists hope that the cotton varieties being tested at the centre will be pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant. Photo By Joseph Miti 

By Joseph Miti

Genetically modified crops are the way to improve crop quality and quantity. But first, laws supporting the technology must be put in place, writes Joseph Miti

“I grew up in Mityana District (then Mubende District) where we used to grow cotton. Each family had at least a one-acre cotton garden since many relied on the crop for their income. 90 per cent of the population was employed in the agricultural sector where cotton and coffee were major sources of income.

During flowering seasons, what would draw one’s attention were pink and white cotton flowers in the villages,” Ruth Nvumetta Kavuma, the Women Representative of Kalangala District in Parliament, recalls the days when cotton was the country’s second most important cash crop in the 1960s and 70s.

“But when you visit this region today, you can hardly find a single cotton plant. Farmers abandoned the crop after it became labour-intensive, making it unprofitable,” Ms Kavuma says. Mr Stephen Ochola, the Soroti District Chairman, tells a similar story. He says cotton was the basis of his success.

“I studied on cotton money,” Ochola says. “My parents used to grow cotton for a living. I remember we used to grow lots of it in order to cater for all family needs including paying school fees and medical bills,” he recalls.

What caused the decline?
According to Dr Thomas Areke, the Director, National Semi-Arid Resource Research Institute (NaSARRI), the glory of cotton hit rock bottom after the crop became vulnerable to pests and diseases, drought, sector-wars and unstable international market prices. “Cotton is a sugary crop enjoyed by many insects and is more vulnerable to weeds. To get better yields, farmers have to carry out routine spraying and weeding. Buying pesticides and paying labourers makes the crop expensive to grow,” he says. Statistics from the Cotton Development Organisation (CDO) indicate that weeds and pests, particularly the bollworms cause as high as 80 to 100 per cent yield losses to some cotton farmers in Uganda, causing a decline in the crop cultivation.

However, Dr Areke says once the two-type genetically-modified (GM) cotton varieties - Herbicide Tolerant (Ht) Cotton and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton being tested by scientists at NaSARRI in Serere, Soroti and Mubuku in Kasese show compliance, costs incurred in growing the crop will drop.

This means the crop will attract more farmers and more money will be pooled into the national treasury. However, though both varieties are showing early indicators of pest-resistance and herbicide-tolerance, the technology is doomed to remain under confinement for years because Uganda is yet to enact the enabling Biotech Safety law that regulates the science. Members of Parliament who visited the Mubuku GM cotton confined field trial site called on the government to expedite the development of biotechnology in the country by enacting enabling laws. MPs on the committees of science and technology, and Agriculture, resolved that Uganda needs biotechnology applications to be deployed in a strategic manner to address immediate needs of the country.

“We have been enlightened by the visit. I am pleased with the technology. You don’t have to spend much on weeding and spraying, and at the same time, farmers don’t need to cultivate big chunks of land to get big returns,” Mr Ojok B’leo, Kioga county MP, said while touring cotton fields, adding that, “We need to fast track the law. It doesn’t make sense to have this technology confined here,” he added. Hon Charles Ngabirano, Chairman of the Science and Technology committee, says the technology is a progressive way of improving productivity both in terms of quantity and quality.

He says it’s in the public’s interest to have the law in place and a science institution created to monitor science activities, the absence of which has left scientists frustrated. “We need a ministry of science and technology to link science and technology to industries,” Mr Ngabirano said.

“We have raised this question to the State Minister for Planning, Ephraim Kamuntu. If we had our own ministry, it would have helped us solve those issues,” he said. Like several African countries, Uganda is currently testing a number of genetically modified (gm) crops including bananas, cassava and drought-tolerant maize among others. But the technologies are not getting to the farmers’ fields because of the absence of the law.

GMO technology still faces criticism all over the world. Those opposing the technology claim the crops may have side-effects to human beings. Mr Ngabirano says the technology has not taken root in Uganda because people fear it.

“They relate GMOs to booms that kill people massively,” he explains. But Dr Theresa Sengooba, the Regional Coordinator of Programme for Biosafety System, says people should not worry about the new technology, which she says is not unique, and is one of the tools scientists worldwide have been using to improve crop productivity. Dr Lastus Katende Serunjogi, Kiboga East MP and Vice Chairman of Parliamentary Agriculture Committee, asked researchers to combine the two GM cotton varieties into one that can withstand both weeds and pests.

Dr Serunjogi, an agricultural expert, says releasing the varieties separately might contribute less to the improvement of farmers’ livelihoods.

MPs also expressed concern over that rate at which the country is losing scientists.

Hon Gordon Sematiko, (Mityana North) attributes this to the country’s reluctance to appreciate scientists’ work.