Farmer's Diary: Biotechnology has the potential to solve our farming problems

Wednesday November 7 2012

By Michael J. Ssali

Farming in Uganda today faces a multitude of challenges. We have a rapidly growing population and our gardens are becoming smaller due to fragmentation. The soil is getting exhausted mainly because of bad farming practices. Our fish stocks are dwindling thanks to pollution of the water bodies, bad fishing methods, and the devastation of wetlands. Most of our farmers lack the knowledge and financial capacity to apply modern farming methods to increase yields. We have a small national budget for agriculture (less than five per cent).

A trip to some of our national agricultural research stations brought me face to face with the men and women who are fighting the diseases and the other problems that have devastated the production of some of our crops such as bananas, cassava, coffee, and cotton. There is an urgent need for policy makers to allocate more money to agriculture, especially agricultural research, for us to overcome the diseases and the pests that have reduced food production and hampered poverty reduction. We need to develop crop lines that are resistant to the new diseases and other emerging challenges such as rising temperatures.

We have to prioritise food security over and above all other issues right now. Otherwise, how can we expect a better future without food?

What scientists are doing
Dr Andrew Kiggundu of Kawanda Research Station is heading an experiment in which green pepper genes are introduced in our local bananas to enable them resist the banana bacterial wilt(BBW), which is fast killing the crop.

However, even if he came up with some BBW resistant varieties tomorrow, he will not just pass them on to the ordinary farmers to plant. We still need a law to guide the implementation of the National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Policy which is yet to be debated and passed.

Secondly, this country is yet to pronounce itself on whether to accept Genetically Modified (GM) crops as if this is still a matter of choice! Our lawmakers must speed up the process of formulating such laws and guidelines. If saving our food crops from extinction requires genetic engineering, which researchers like Dr Kiggundu are doing to our bananas, then, we have no choice but to accept GM food crops.

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Fortunately, our scientists and researchers are beginning to open up to the media on saving our crops from disease, increasing farm yields, appropriate seeds to plant, and a whole range of other issues. Any step they take, any progress they make, and any draw back they get has a direct bearing on our food security today or tomorrow.

But let it not appear as if biotechnology is only about GM food production. It is also about other scientific ways of crop breeding such as tissue culture –the making of clean seedlings from single cells –and the manipulation of pollen to make hybrid varieties, among others. A lot of such crop breeds, branded as improved varieties, have been made available to us by our researchers and we are already using them.

Sometimes though, after they have achieved what is considered a breakthrough, another problem emerges, as Dr Africano Kangire of Kituuza Coffee Research Station once remarked. The coffee wilt disease resistant varieties are now available but a new problem has surfaced –the black coffee twig borer. It is a new problem and it is fast reducing coffee yields.

We should therefore give a chance to biotechnology to protect and improve farm yields.

ssalimichaelj@gmail.com

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