Counting potential benefits of biotechnology to Uganda

A researcher inspects GM cassava plants in a lab at the National Crops Resources Institute, Namulonge. Adopting biotechnology has significant benefits for Uganda’s agricultural production. PHOTO BY LOMINDA AFEDRARU

In crop agriculture, genetic modification (GM) technology has been used to improve appearance, taste, nutritional quality as well as drought, pest and disease tolerance.

The most adopted trait is that of herbicide tolerance, which enables weed control through chemical application as opposed to hand weeding.

In Uganda, research on GM technology is going on in these key crops: Banana (for bacterial wilt, nematodes resistance and nutritional value), cassava (for virus resistance), sweet potato (for weevil resistance), cotton ( for boll worm resistance and herbicide tolerance), maize (for drought resistance), rice (for nitrogen efficiency), and Irish potato (for late blight disease resistance).

However, as scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) carry out this research, there is need for farmers and other stakeholders to know the economic value of growing these crops vis-à-vis the traditional crops.

Basing on this, Drs Anton Bua and Vincent Ekiyar undertook a study on a number of factors including production, yield, output prices, input costs and demand and supply.

The data were analysed following an economic surplus framework, showing the changes in consumer, producer and total welfare of farmers due to anticipated increase in yield as a result of using material bred using biotechnology.

Dr Ekiyar said the economic surplus benefits from biotech crops were compared with the research and dissemination costs of transgenic technology in the benefit costs projected over a period of 10 years.

He was explaining details of the survey at a recent Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (Ofab) meeting held in Kampala.

Findings indicate that high expected potential will accrue to producers, consumers, private seed companies and the economy as a whole.

The potential benefit to consumers that will result from growing transgenic banana is about $199.7m, $4.5m for maize, $16.6m for cassava, $4.6m in sweet potatoes and $5.6m in rice.

This is what consumers are currently forfeiting as a result of non-adoption of biotechnology in Uganda.

The potential benefits to farmers that will result from growing transgenic banana are about $99.9m, $15.3m in maize, $7.6m in cassava, $2.1m in sweet potatoes and $14.2m in rice. These are minimum benefits that the farmers are missing as a result of not growing GM crops.

Expected benefits to the whole economy for transgenic banana is $299.6m, $19.8m in maize, $24.2m in cassava, $6.7m in sweet potatoes and $19.9m in rice.

Net present value benefit-cost ratios of GM crops for the 10-year period were highest in banana, rated at $771.4m followed by rice with $142m, then maize $118.1m, cassava $58.7m and sweet potato $16.2m.

These rates indicate investment and returns expected in research for the various crops over a decade.

Internal rates for returns of GM crops in the country for research and production over the same period indicate 71 per cent for rice, 69.5 per cent for maize, 45 per cent for cassava, 39.9 per cent for banana and 12.4 per cent for sweet potatoes.

Considering economic risks in terms of loss of export market due to adoption of GM crops, they are low compared to economic surplus benefits.
For instance, a Bank of Uganda 2011 report indicates that estimated value of informal maize grain and flour exports to neighbouring countries in 2009/2010 at $36.7m and $45.8m respectively. These figures are below expected benefits from GM crops.

The Bua-Ekiyar study, therefore, shows that these crops provide significant economic benefits for farmers, who may opt to grow them.
This is for consumption and commercialisation in different agro-ecological zones depending on farm size and marketing strategy.

Subsequently, the researchers recommend that it is viable for smallholder farmers to engage in growing GM crops.
But, for this to happen, it calls for an enabling law to regulate production and commercialisation of the different crop varieties, which is an international requirement for every country engaging farmers to grow GM crops.