Biotech research in Uganda: It is more than just untapped potential

Tuesday March 02 2021
comment03pix
By Guest Writer

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role that scientific fields like biotechnology can play to better the human condition. However, despite decades of application in different disciplines, biotechnology use in agriculture still carries an aura of socio-political contempt. 

And this is not without its pitfalls, especially considering the huge amount of resources that goes into biotech research and development.  
Since 1996, Uganda has made significant investments in agricultural biotechnology research and development from multimillion-dollar facilities to hundreds of people in built human capacity. 

It paints the picture of a progressive nation; committed to harnessing the potential of modern agricultural biotechnology to enhance sustainable food production, boost investment opportunities and overall national development. However, for all this investment, the principal beneficiaries, including farmers and this nation’s bulging youthful population, are yet to realise any returns. 

Universities such as Makerere, Kyambogo, Uganda Christian University and University of Kisubi continue to churn out hundreds of graduates competent in biotechnology each year. This raises pertinent questions: Why build this capacity if the country won’t utilise it? Why are such programmes commissioned at the universities in the first place? Or more importantly, what does this mean for the parents who send their children to study these programmes only to add on to the numbers of unemployed youth in the country?

Sustained government investment in cutting edge agricultural research to harness the latest technologies for the benefit of our farmers and overall national development is commendable. It has helped put the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) on the map as a regional centre of excellence in agricultural research. 

Our home-grown research is helping feed people as far as Zambia and Mozambique! And this goes without mentioning our immediate neighbours. 

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Nevertheless, in the development of better, more resilient crops and animals, one set of technologies - agricultural biotechnology- remains a black sheep.

 The primary reason for the failure to translate decades of agricultural biotechnology research from our national research centres to the intended end-users in this country has been an unconducive policy environment. 

For the last two decades, Uganda has been in the process of formulating a national regulatory framework for biotechnology and biosafety. However, thus far, the existing regulatory environment does not permit commercialisation of products of agricultural biotech research. 

The latest version of a regulation that would have permitted public release- the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act (GERA, 2018) - was rejected by the President in July 2019. This follows a rejection of an earlier version of the Bill passed by Parliament in November 2018.

The absence of an enabling policy environment is, among others, blocking investment opportunities in the public and private sector and contributing to noteworthy brain-drain. Further, Uganda’s farmers are denied the chance to choose and use biotech crops to improve their production and productivity. 

Limited investment opportunities mean less jobs created for the human capacity being developed (mostly the youth) at our universities - and ultimately wasted investment by well-meaning parents who sponsor children’s education! 

It is counterintuitive that a government invests so much in building expertize in an industry and then goes on to disregard such expertize! The glaring mistrust of our own scientists in making key decisions regarding agricultural biotechnology is akin to sending your child to study law in school and then consulting a physician for legal advice. 

The country’s largely youthful population finds it increasingly difficult to penetrate the agriculture sector due to a number of reasons but importantly because the sector’s prospects are grim having consistently performed poorly and well below set targets. 

National agricultural output has grown at about 2 per cent per annum over the last few years, well below the population growth rate and the 3-5% growth rates in other East African countries according to the world bank.

With the world’s second youngest population at about 78 per cent of the total, demographic dividends must be harnessed to realise economic transitions by strategically investing in and creating opportunities for this human capital.

 Revitalising key sectors like agriculture will be vital to making them attractive to the youth and other stakeholders. And what better way to do this than exploiting the locally built capacity, and leveraging technologies developed by our very own scientists at institutions like NARO. 

The political will to take the hard and necessary decisions with regard to agricultural biotechnology in Uganda is still largely tenuous.

 By blocking or limiting access to innovative agricultural technologies, not only is the government stifling agricultural progress, but it is  but also going against current efforts aimed at advancing towards the national agenda of transforming agriculture into a competitive and profitable sector. 

As the country marches towards Vision 2040, it is timely to re-examine such largely untapped investments and as a country, purpose to reap the benefits. Supporting sustained innovation and adopting agricultural technologies with the potential to increase productivity is a critical and necessary step.

Among other concerns, agricultural biotechnology is plagued with the fear that Genetically Modified (GM) and traditional crops cannot co-exist. But the scientific consensus is clear that GM crops can coexist with other farming practices. 

With this in mind, if the country is serious about building a sustainable and progressive agricultural sector, we must chart a path towards a meaningful progression and happy middle ground for all stakeholders. 

The country ought to avoid getting trapped in conservationist approaches and grasp the opportunities available to us, exploiting modern technologies, to create investment and employment opportunities, feed our own as well as a growing world population and foster national development. 

This country’s youth, can only wait with baited breath, in the hope that government resolves to unlock the potential of key sectors like agriculture thereby giving them the opportunity to carry on the work and expand the opportunities pioneered by Ugandan scientists as we champion a robust, progressive and sustainable agricultural sector. 

Columnist Dr Muniini Mulera returns next week
 

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