The rush for genetically engineered crops

Saturday February 2 2019

Michael J. Ssali

Michael J. Ssali 

By Michael J. Ssali

For centuries, mankind has been doing crop and animal improvement to meet his needs- high yielding, better tasting, drought tolerant, and disease resistant.
For a farmer that aims at selling big quantities of milk it makes sense to stock Frisian cows which have been bred for high milk yields.
According to Noel Kingsbury (The History and Science of Plant Breeding) nearly all the food crops we have today are quite different from what they were thousands of years ago.
“It is plant breeders who stand between ancestral crops or wild plants and modern varieties,” says Kingsbury. The crops represent a long history of selective breeding, hybridization, and genetic meddling by scientists and countless anonymous farmers.

Most farmers just select seed from the best crops and store it for the next planting season but scientists who understand more the process of heredity take direct actions to get the desired crop varieties.
As you read this, Africa is faced with food production challenges ranging from climate change, pests and diseases, malnutrition, a rapidly growing population, depleted soils, among others. African scientists are therefore working towards overcoming those challenges.

Following the passing of the Genetic Engineering Bill Ugandan farmers may soon be growing GE banana, GE cassava, GE cotton, GE Irish potatoes and maize as a way of addressing the challenges.
Faced with similar challenges Kenya is moving towards growing Genetically Engineered maize which is bred to resist pests, disease, herbicides, to tolerate drought, and to reduce malnutrition.
Pests are making it almost impossible to grow cotton needed for our textile and apparel industries and African countries are working towards growing genetically engineered cotton.

Recently, in Nigeria, when introducing the GE cowpea to the public, Prof Muhammad Ishiyaku, who was the principal investigator of the GE cowpea research, disclosed that researchers decided to use genetic engineering to address the problems of farmers caused by the bean pod pest in cowpea, which lead to high crop losses of up to 80 per cent. (Crop Biotech Update Jan 23 19) Other countries such as Malawi, Ghana, and Ethiopia are soon commercializing GE crops.