GM potato: Variety could deflate GMO myths’ bubble in Uganda

Uganda is steadily progressing towards having a potato that will not require chemical spraying. This is because scientists at National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) and International Potato Centre have developed Late Blight resistant variety, Vic 1 from the popularly grown susceptible Victoria variety.
According to Dr Alex Barekye, who is the director of Kachwekano Zonal Agricultural Research Development Institute in Kabale District, this new variety has shown great results in resisting late Blight disease that is a menace in potato growing areas.
Currently, Naro is conducting confined multi-location trials in major potato regions of Uganda. In Kigezi at Kachwekanko; Rwenzori at Rwebitaba; and Elgon at Buginyanya. This is the stage in variety development process where a potential variety is subjected to different agro-ecological conditions to observe how it responds to different environments.
I witnessed the planting at Kachwekano and I was impressed by how local farmers are directly involved in the process. Farmer’s participation is a key component in variety development process. It helps build their confidence in the variety, and to realise that scientists are working to address the challenges they face daily in their farms.
After planting the trial in Kabale, I visited the home of one farmer, Herbert Friday, who participated in the trials. Friday is a potato farmer with four acres of potato that begins at the edge of his homestead. He resides a few kilometers from where the trial is located. Besides, Friday’s semi-permanent house laid an old knapsack sprayer that he uses to administer chemicals. I saw the evidence of chemical use in the several empty chemical sachets that littered his compound.
His main concern, however, was the cost of chemical and the number of times he must spray to realise any yield. He was not concerned about the effect of chemicals on his health or on the water source. Friday’s farm is right above the famous Lake Bunyonyi, as several other farms that sit above this tourist-laden lake.
Without spraying farmers barely get anything. The new GM potato will keep chemicals off the crops and that means farmers who could not afford chemicals will now begin to harvest more. The chemical companies will lose and farmers will gain, contrary to the saying that GMOs are all about chemicals and multinational corporations, and not for farmers.
The source of disease resistance in this new potato variety is from a close relative of domesticated potatoes that had been used earlier by breeders. The difference here is in how resistance was transferred.
In conventional breeding, the resistance is transferred through pollen, while here, that resistance carried in the pollen was isolated and transferred through genetic engineering. It has made it possible for scientists to improve the local Victoria variety without changing anything else other than adding Late Blight disease resistance.
In October, Parliament passed the Biosafety Bill that seeks to create regulations, and offices to oversee the adoption of these promising technologies.
Uganda, despite the high number of research trials, ratification of Cartagena protocol on Biosafety in 2001, and the passing by Cabinet of Biosafety Policy in 2008, remains a laggard in having a domesticated comprehensive regulatory framework for genetic engineering research developments.
As in most African countries, the major adoption challenge is the political will. Political will is seen in action not utterances. The delay in passing the Biosafety Bill and the further delay by the President to assent to the same could be interpreted as a “go slow” policy position. Going slow implies farmers will continue to suffer with pests and diseases.

Mr Ongu is an agriculturist.
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