What you need to know:
As efforts are being made to tackle the challenges that farmers face, there is misinformation that tries to discredit these initiative
It is increasingly common to hear that there are multinational organisations set to destroy our traditional crops and farming practices by the use of biotechnology.
“They want to exploit us by forcing us to buy new seeds from them every time we want to plant, instead of using our own seeds, saved from the previous harvest,” some say. “They want us to buy fertiliser and other chemicals. They are introducing [genetically modified] crops and destroying our own crops.”
An online reader wrote, “The use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) is never an option. Most of us know that GMO can have adverse effects on both the soil and the human body. It is proven that they can alter the human DNA let alone destroy the soil.”
Another wrote on the same page: “GMOs should be banned all over the world. They say they increase productivity and are disease resistant but we have too much food rotting in Uganda’s rural areas because of poor storage facilities and low market prices.”
In the past, government launched Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) and National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) with the aim of improving production and increasing household incomes.
Modern agriculture is about extending land’s capacity to produce via irrigation, improved seed and livestock, fertilisers and control of pests and diseases.
If we talk about improved seeds, then we must be prepared to accept seeds specially prepared by plant breeders and proven to have desired characteristics.
Scientists do this by transfer of genes and make observations until they have the right seed. In some cases, they carry out grafting, which involves uniting of two stems of different but related plants--like oranges and lemons --to come up with a plant that may be tolerant to disease or have other desirable characteristics.
Cloning is another form of technology used to produce high quality plantlets while tissue culture is used to get disease-free plantlets. This is commonly done in research stations under National Agricultural Research Organisation.
There are private seed companies that deliver quality seeds to smallholder farmers in Uganda to improve agricultural production.
A serious farmer should have a budget for seeds and plantlets to come up with high yields. It is outdated for a farmer to plant seeds saved from previous harvests because due to biological reasons, they cannot be as productive.
It is not true to say there is too much food in Uganda because the reality is, due to pests and diseases, we are producing less.
Dr Jerome Kubiriba, head of the Banana Research Project, has said Uganda’s annual $550m worth production of bananas has reduced to $350m, thanks to Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) which is an incurable pest-caused disease.
Joseph Nkandu, executive director, National Union for Coffee Agro-business and Farm Enterprise (Nucafe), has pointed out that Coffee Wilt Disease (CWD) has reduced Uganda’s Robusta coffee stock by 55 per cent. The crop also came under attack by the coffee twig borer, which caused exports loss of more than $18m in 2011, according to Uganda Coffee Development Authority.
It has got worse with increased spread across the coffee growing regions against the backdrop that Uganda is statistically Africa’s leading producer of bananas and Robusta coffee--positions that we are set to lose unless we arrest the situation in time.
Another factor to be born in mind is that our population growth is among the highest globally.
Rapid population growth is also responsible for land fragmentation, which leads to soil degradation and less food production. We are also faced with climate change, which include drought and emergence of pests in areas where they did not exist.
In response to the effects of global warming (climate change), government and development partners have invested money in genetic engineering or GM technology to develop crops resistant to disease and tolerant to drought.
This is being done at laboratories at research stations such as Kawanda, Namulonge and elsewhere. But due to lack of correct information, some people say GM crops are imported by ‘selfish multinational companies’ into the country to destroy the indigenous crops.
They cannot believe that GM research has been started to protect and preserve our own crops.
We have GM research at Kawanda to find a solution to the BBW and to increase vitamin A content of the bananas. There is research in Kasese to achieve drought tolerant maize. Another on cotton in Kasese and Serere to achieve boll worm resistance and herbicide tolerance.
Cassava is undergoing research for resistance to mosaic and brown streak diseases. It is important to understand that GM researchis being carried out under close assessment by Food and Agricultural Organisation as well as World Health Organisation and the Uganda Biotechnology and Bio-safety Consortium, which comprises stakeholders in support of safe and responsible use of biotechnology for national development.
The country is now debating the biotechnology and bio-safety Bill but some people are urging the parliamentarians not to pass it.
Some even say that GMO crops are manmade and therefore they pose a threat to human health. The same people, however, trust the internet, the cell phones, and computers which are also man made. They travel in cars and airplanes. They use tablets and other manmade drugs prescribed by doctors to get cured when they fall sick. We must begin to trust science.
Be climate smart
I have been to some research stations in Uganda and others in UK but I have not found any reason to believe that they are aimed at killing or maiming human beings.
The African Agriculture Status Report prepared by Agra, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, noted that climate change could reduce the number of malnourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa by nearly 40 per cent over the next 35 years from 223 million today to 335 million by 2050.
It advises that the farmers must be prepared to adopt climate-smart agriculture. However, climate-smart agriculture involves willingness to carry out research and adaptation of scientific technologies. India has been doing exactly that and it is an exporter of cotton today when only five years ago, before it adopted GM technology, it was a net importer of cotton.