February 28, 2013

Fears As Scientists Push For GM Crops To Control Viruses

Scientists and some government officials have disagreed with civil society activists over the use of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties to eliminate plant viruses.

Whereas scientists indicated that breeding GM crop varieties would effectively eliminate plant viruses, some activists fear the crops will pose a threat to indigenous seeds and human health.

Such sentiments came up at Parliament on Wednesday during a public hearing on the National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill 2012 being considered by the committee on science and technology.

Professor Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, the programme leader at National Banana Research Program, Kawanda, said GM seeds would not only fight plant viruses but also offer other benefits such as improved nutrition and drought tolerance among others. He says the GMOs are likely to form a part of East Africa’s cropping solutions in the future and that it is high time Uganda joined other East African countries to enact laws that regulate their application.

Tushemereirwe says it is becoming difficult to fight the plant viruses under the conventional method of breeding, where genetic modification is not involved.  Giving an example of Cassava, Tushemereirwe said varieties that had been bred to resist cassava mosaic ended up being attacked by yet another deadly cassava brown streak virus.

He said the pressing need to guard some of the crops being attacked by the plant viruses overrides some of the fears being raised by civil society.

But Clement Ndyashangaki, a farmer, expressed fear that farmers may in the near future lack what to plant if GM technology is adapted in Uganda.

While Robert Tumwesigye, the Executive Director of Pro Bio-Diversity Conservationists in Uganda, says genetically modified seeds could be very expensive for an average farmer.

Some activists under the Food Rights Alliance asked parliament not to hurriedly enact the bill. They claimed there has been insufficient consultation.

But Arthur Makara, the director of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (Scifode), said consultations have been on since 1998 leading to the passing of the national policy on Biotechnology and bio-safety in 2008 and National development Plan in 2010.

Makara says Uganda is conducting many experimental field tests of crops produced under biotechnology. They can only be commercialized once a law is passed to regulate the process. Some of the crops include Bt Cotton which is ready for commercialization. Other crops in the pipeline include bananas, cassava and maize.

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