UGANDA, EAST AFRICA – Research in genetically modified plants is going on at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute in Kampala. Currently, the scientific activity is concentrating on the banana plant’s Black Wilt Disease, or “Black Sotoka,” that periodically devastates Uganda’s banana crop.
The transgenic research conducted at the Biotechnology Center, headed by Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, resembles a security operation. To access the fenced-area enclosure, where the Bogoya plant is being grown, one undergoes a rigorous security check under round-the-clock surveillance . All the precaution is well-placed, given the worldwide concern and misunderstanding of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) foods.
After a recent well-attended Global Status of Commercialized Crops Summit, a booklet was published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) titled Global Status of Commercialized/GM Crops:2007.
Regarding its creation, Dr. Charles Mugoya, a director at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNST) and also the East African Program Manager of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in East and Central Africa (ASARECA), tells a pointed story about its creation, following a heated discussion with a coworker who was strenuously opposed to GMO foods. Globally, four plants – soybeans, cotton, maize and canola (known locally as “Sukuma wiki”) are undergoing transgenic engineering in tissue culture and genetic engineering .
“Knowledge evolves with time,”says Mugoya. “We take long to adopt technologies” – a “characteristic of Africa.” Although the first transgenic plants were cultured in 1983, plant tissue culture dated back in 1972, while BT-cotton, the first GMO to be commercialized in the United States, came out 1996. Uganda only got into the transgenic in 2003.
The Regional Advisor for East Africa and Director of Bio-Plus Strategies International (BIOPSTRA), Dr. Tilakun Zeweldu, of Ethiopia, has emphasized the need to create a link through legislation, a feat made more difficult by the fact that many politicians are uninformed about what’s going on in the nation’s laboratories.
Dr. Zeweldu further emphasizes that because “biotech is always with us” in all five areas of human endeavor (agriculture, industry, health, environment and energy), politicians and scientists must be engaged – although, he said, while “accountability differs, the responsibility is the same.”
So while the UNCST focuses on safety, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) focuses on research and the National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAADS) works with farmers on the adoption of technologies developed in the laboratories .
ASARECA, which operates in 10 countries of East and Central Africa, is concerned with the conduct of research and with providing agricultural support, in the form of giving farmers information about various crop options – for instance, the indigenous vegetables. ASERECA wants to promote the growth of indigenous vegetables, which, while they are useful, often are no delectable, with low yields and a lack of commercial availability of seeds. On the plus side, however, most indigenous vegetables are resilient in the fact of climate changes, because of their genetic formation.
Still, the result of the technologies will not just be off-loaded to the farmers before their wider release. It is necessary to bring farmers into the mainstream economy as well, taking advantage of the Plan for Modernization of Agriculture (PMA) process and other policy initiatives to achieve development goals.
The Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Dr. Ezra Suruma ,said,” a
number of actions are being put in place to ensure that PMA's marketing and agro-processing strategy (MAP'S), is translated into desired activities as soon as possible.
He cited that; while productivity increases,are beginning to be realized , as a result of increased farmer access to technologies and advice under the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), effective integration of production to agro-processing t and organized marketing of agricultural products , remains a challenge.
Agriculture, by far, remains the leading single employer in Uganda, but despite notable achievements in the agricultural sector, too many rural households remain poor, to which end the government’s Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development has begun work on a rural development strategy (RDS), aimed at supporting current efforts to effect improvement in household incomes through specific agrarian interventions.
The RDS, it is hoped, will build on the existing policy framework for Poverty Eradication and Agricultural Programs (PEAP), PMA and associated programs. The relevance of PMA to poverty reduction is that agricultural production plays a central role in driving growth that benefits the vast majority of those in the agriculture sector – the backbone of Uganda's economy, since about 85 percent of the population depends on agriculture.
But the world has for millennia been relying on “traditional biotechnology,” and according to UNCST Senior Bio-Safety Officer, Arthur Makara, some of our present-day crops date back to 8000 B.C.