Agricultural scientists have been breeding variety of crops using conventional methods for improved varieties with the capacity to give high yields and other desired attributes such as drought tolerance and disease resistance.
In this quest, one of the technologies which has come into use is modern biotechnology, and Ugandan scientists have not been left out.
The first laboratory set up to conduct research on issues related to pests and diseases in banana was at the National Research Laboratories (NARL) in Kawanda in 2003. Since then, crop breeding using biotechnology kicked off and was later extended to National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge and other research institutes.
Regulations in place
Currently, the scientists are developing genetically modified (GM) products at confined field trials. They are testing bananas for resistance to banana bacterial wilt (BBW), black sigatoka, nematodes as well as biofortifying banana with micro-nutrients with iron and Vitamin A.
Other crops under tests include cassava against cassava mosaic virus and cassava brown streak, maize for tolerance in drought conditions, rice varieties that grow in nitorgen-deprived soils, sweet potato against the potato feathery mottle virus, and cotton against bollworm.
However, it is a requirement that for GM products to be rolled out to farmers, there must be an existing biotechnology and biosafety law.
In 2008, the parliament passed the policy on biotechnology and biosafety and the government drafted a law to enforce this policy.
Still at the Bill stage, it is before parliament for debate and is proving to be very controversial with many legislators, mostly arguing against it with hardly any evidence to support their views.
However, scientists who have been conducting research say with or without the law in place, in next two to three years, their products will be ready for release to farmers.
Dr Yona Baguma, deputy director general, Naro, reaffirmed this while giving a presentation to legislators about the status of biotechnology research going on in different institutes.
He pointed out that by 2016, crops like the transgenic insect-resistant maize and BBW-resistant banana will be ready for release. In 2017, the list will be Bt-maize, stacked with resistance to stem borer and drought tolerance, Vitamin A- and iron-enrichened banana, virus-resistant cassava and nitrogen-efficient rice.
Therefore, it is imperative that the Bill is passed into law to provide an enabling regulatory environment. This will be a boon to research on aspects, including but not limited to cattle breeds resistant to heat, pigs resistant to African swine fever and others where the technology can only be possible using biotechnology.
Dr Baguma explains that regulation of biotechnology started in the 1960s when scientists held discussions on risky science involving genetically modified human beings.
Scientists and policy makers then moved to the decision that application of biotechnology in breeding; whatever species be it plants, animals and humans, among others, must be regulated.
Dr Theresa Sengoba, a plant breeder, concurs with the view that since there are already biotech crops due for release, it is therefore wise for parliament to pass the Bill for safe use of the products.
Since the use of GM products is increasing globally, Ugandan farmers definitely need these products inspite of the controversial debate around them.
Dr Peter Ndemere, executive director, Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), pointed out that it is time for Uganda to have a clear position about agricultural Science particularly the application of modern biotechnology.
He went on to explain that the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy, which was passed in 2008, spent more than 10 year in parliament before it was passed.
UNCST, together with the Attorney General’s office, then drafted the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, which went through several checks including Cabinet approval, before being forwarded to parliament.
But the Bill has attracted controversies with legislators claiming it only highlights issues concerning GM crops but not other agricultural products developed using biotechnology.
“There is nothing strange about scientists breeding crops using modern biotechnology. For instance, if I see a banana plantation drying as a result of extreme drought and I go to a desert and pick genes of a plant, which survives under drought conditions, I put this gene in banana to make it drought resistant, does the product turn out to be dangerous?” Ndemere questioned.
A Member of Parliament, Jim Muwhezi, who attended the dialogue expressed the need to appreciate the importance of agricultural science.
He summed it up thus: “Dr Ndemere has challenged us saying if we do not want to pass the bill as it is, then we should go ahead to pass a law, which will bar importation of GM food from other countries to Uganda. He is also telling us if we trust witch doctors and medical doctors, who we believe can cure our illnesses, then why don’t we trust ‘agricultural doctors’ to cure our hunger. For this matter, I urge [MPs] to pass this Bill as soon as possible.”
Globally, so far, GM research has been done on crops for pest and disease resistance, tolerance to drought and salinity, high yields, protein and oil content, as well as metabolic manipulation mainly for starch in industrial process, and edible vaccines especially in South Africa.
In modern biotechnology, scientists are interested in obtaining a particular gene, which will express a trait of interest with other characteristics of the plant remain the same.
Current statuts of biotech crops: a global picture
Genetically modified (GM) crops are being grown in an increasing number of countries world wide, according to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (Isaaa),
The figures show that the total economic benefit realised from sale of biotech crops amounted to $116.9b out of total acreage of 175 million hectares of land. This led to a total annual growth increase rated at three per cent.
Some of the countries that have adopted this technology include US, which is leading with 69.5 million hectares of crops such as maize, soya bean, cotton, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya and squash. Then, Canada, which grew a record 8.4 million hectares of GM canola.
Other leading countries are Brazil majoring in soya bean, maize and cotton on 36.6million hectares of land.
This is followed by Argentina and India covering 23.9 million and 10.8 million hectares for soya bean, maize and cotton respectively.Canada and China have 11.6 million and four million hecatres, respectively, of biotech crops such as canola, maize, soya beans, sugar beet, cotton, papaya, poplar tomato and sweet pepper.