Recently, Daily Monitor published an opinion titled, "Future of Africa's agriculture lies in sustainable green farming, not GMOs." As the saying goes, "people are entitled to their opinions but not their own facts", that is why I have written - to let the public know the truth and facts about genetic engineering in Uganda.
The crops (maize, soy beans, cassava, bananas and groundnuts) claimed to be genetically modified and growing in West Nile are not GMOs. The decline in yields is due to a reduction in soil fertility resulting from continuous growing of crops in the same fields without replenishing nutrients, whereas pre-mature rotting of crops is due to new pests and diseases. There are no known ways of effectively dealing with the new pests and diseases other than the use of modern biotechnology methods such as genetic engineering. At Naro, we are undertaking research using these modern methods to develop crops that will overcome the new challenges but we have not yet released any of the promising varieties. There is no genetically engineered crop or seed being grown in any part of the country yet.
Genetic engineering is a method of improving crop productivity by either giving the crop the ability to naturally resist a disease, improve yields or boost the nutritional content of the crop in situations where traditional breeding methods are not possible. For instance at Kawanda, we are working on a banana variety that will resist the deadly bacterial wilt, which has wiped out plantations. We are also bio-fortifying matooke with pro-vitamin A, which the body turns into vitamin A as needed to strengthen immunity against infections, especially in children and child bearing women who are more vulnerable. At Namulonge, our colleagues are developing cassava that will resist the brown streak disease, which causes rotting in cassava and maize that will tolerate drought. In all these cases, it is not possible to get a solution using traditional crop improvement methods.
Naro has been at the forefront of improving agricultural productivity, so we have the farmer at the centre of all we do. For example, whenever, Naro releases a new variety, we give it out free to farmers and this will be the case with genetically engineered crops once research is completed.
The genetically engineered crops will undergo testing to ensure safety both to humans and the environment and will only be released after approval by a competent regulatory body provided for in the biotechnology and biosafety Bill now under discussion.
Since GMO research is mostly public-sector funded, the issue of patent ownership by private companies will not arise. The farmers will only incur the cost of buying new seed just like they have been doing in the past. The choice of storing seed from a previous harvest or buying new seed is one an individual farmer will need to make.
Ugandans should not resist this technology simply because some Western countries have not accepted it. Let us not forget the countries that are resisting GMOs are food secure and are not grappling with pests and diseases for which traditional crop improvement solutions are not possible. The pests and diseases are constantly evolving but they do so faster in the tropics. Some western countries do not need GMOs but we do.
We are all interested in a constant supply of safe nutritious food and a healthy eco-system we can pass on to future generations. Currently, genetic engineering is the only solution to some farming challenges, so spreading false information defeats our common purpose.
Dr Tushemereirwe is the director of the National Agricultural Research Laboratories - Kawanda