NaCRRI Ready To Provide Farmers with GMOs

A banana leaf affected with black sigatoka at the National Agricultural Research Organization, Uganda(Hilary Heuler)

The National Crops Resources Research Institute-NaCRRI has capacity to supply farmers with Genetically Modified Organisms-GMOs within a space of two to three years, should Parliament pass the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012, RedPepper Online edition has learnt.

A banana leaf affected with black sigatoka at the National Agricultural Research Organization, Uganda(Hilary Heuler)
A banana leaf affected with black sigatoka at the National Agricultural Research Organization, Uganda(Hilary Heuler)

r. Titus Alicai, the Plant Virologist at National Crops Resources Research Institute disclosed on Monday during a guided tour of legislators at the institute Bio technology and Chemistry Laboratories where experiments on disease resistant cassava, sweet Potatoes and Yam varieties are ongoing.
Alicai noted that as a science of bio-technology, work has been going on in the labs in accordance with the statute of Uganda National Council of Science and Technology. He explained that the institute has a number of technologies for controlling Banana bacterial wilt, Cassava viruses, Sweet potato viruses and maize.
He said as scientists they have made efforts to ensure that the technology works were it is needed to work and that many groups of plants are now at the stage of making products.
Alicai however noted that their efforts are being limited by the absence of an enabling law adding that, once the law becomes available they are ready to go to the next level.
The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 has generated a lot of debate in the country with some people saying it poses a lot of risk to humanity. Recently, Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of Parliament directed MPs to consult with their constituencies before it is debated and passed.
The NRM Caucus discussed the bill last week and never got to a conclusion. The caucus is set to meet on Tuesday to discuss the bill before parliament resumes on Wednesday this week.
The bill’s sole purpose is an act to ensure the safe development and use of modern biotechnology; to provide mechanisms to regulate research, development and use of genetically modified organisms.

Matooke black sigatoka reversable

On a small, tidy banana plantation just outside Kampala, Andrew Kiggundu walked among the plants turning over leaves.  The plot was lush and green, but still, he did not like what he saw.

“The disease on the leaves you see right now is not the wilt, it is a different disease called black sigatoka.  It is just killing off the leaves and causing significant yield loss,” he said. “This is a big problem, although of course not as much as the wilt, because the wilt just destroys the whole plant.”

Kiggundu works with NARO. The new plants are meant to be resistant to black sigatoka and banana bacterial wilt, which has been wiping out vast swaths of the country’s crop.

Uganda is the world’s number one consumer of bananas, a staple in terms of food security.  NARO Research Director Wilberforce Tushemereirwe said this is why it is so important to produce healthy plants.

“The disease keeps on moving around wiping out garden after garden, so you will go to areas where you find they have changed from banana to annual crops,” he said. “That has already introduced food insecurity, because they are not used to handling annual crops.”

Uganda already allows trials of genetically modified organisms and a Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill before parliament would set the legal stage for their development and distribution.

But the issue has created a firestorm among Ugandan activists, with many claiming genetically modified organisms would be dangerous to human health, the environment and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

Giregon Olupot, a soil biophysicist at Makerere University, has been an outspoken critic of the technology.

“There are a range of options that risk to be wiped [out], just by this technology,” said Olupot.  “With bananas, tissue culture has worked well to engineer healthy plants.  You then take these plants to a clean garden and maintain field hygiene.  Why are we not giving emphasis to that technology?”

Most genetically modified seeds are patented, requiring farmers to re-purchase them after each planting.  This might work for commercial farmers, said Olupot, but Uganda’s subsistence farmers relied on their own seeds.  Marketing genetically modified organisms to them could mean trapping them in a system they could not afford, he said.

“If you are to go commercial, it has to be on a large scale.  Now the farmers we are talking about, on average, have 0.4 hectares of land.  It is simply not suitable for our farmers,” said Olupot.

Uganda’s genetically modified bananas are being developed by a public institution, and NARO said no patent restrictions would apply to them.  But Olupot said this would probably not be the case with future genetically modified crops introduced to Uganda.

Anti-GMO campaigners have been diligent in spreading their message, remarked Kiggundu, and many farmers were now afraid of genetically modified organisms.

“They are, because of course they have heard a lot of bad things about them from those who are trying to de-campaign the technology.  And for the few times that I have been out there and able to tell them the truth, you could see second thoughts.  That sort of response tells you that they have maybe a preconceived idea,” he said.

The Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill is expected to pass before the end of the year.  But Olupot insisted that if a referendum on genetically modified organisms were held today among Ugandan farmers, the response would be an overwhelming “no.”

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