By Mildred Barungi

mildred barungi

In 2008, the Ugandan Cabinet approved the National Biotechnology and Biosafety policy, whose objective is to ensure that Uganda benefits from safe application of modern biotechnology such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

As a result, the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 was developed with objectives to guide implementation of the aforesaid policy; and mimimise and manage any potential risks to the environment, human and animal health that may be associated with GMOs. In October 2017, parliament passed the National Biosafety Act 2017.

The Act is an important requirement to comply with international obligations, especially to ensure responsible use of the modern biotechnology in our country.
Currently, available genetically modified crops such as bananas, maize, cotton and cassava are still confined at field trials at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), and are inaccessible to farmers.

Without supporting legislation, the GM crops could not have been made available to farmers. Therefore, with the enactment of the National Biosafety Act 2017, we expect that the genetically modified crop varieties that have been developed and passed the necessary safety tests will be approved for general release, that is, availed to both smallholder and large scale farmers for adoption.

According to research conducted by NARO over the years (since 2007 to date): GM bananas are resistant to Banana bacterial wilt (BBW) disease and are rich in Vitamin A; GM maize is drought tolerant; GM cotton is resistant to Bollworm and is thus expected to enhance yield and quality of lint; and GM cassava is resistant to cassava mosaic and cassava brown streak virus diseases and so is expected to increase food security.

Given such important attributes, adoption of GM crops by farmers has the potential to contribute to the attainment of some sustainable development goals, especially the goals relating to ending poverty in all its forms, ensuring zero hunger and combating climate change and its impact.

However, it should be appreciated that even before the development of GM crops, as way back as the 1960s, several other improved crop varieties were developed using conventional breeding techniques and released for uptake by farmers. Like GM crops, these improved crop varieties too possess special attributes such as being: high yielding, resistant/tolerant to pests and diseases, early maturing, and drought resistant/tolerant.

However, to date, most farmers are yet to substantially adopt them; farmers continue to prefer indigenous crop varieties. Less than 10 percent of the land is under cultivation with improved seeds. Based on the slow adoption of proven technologies noted in the past years, it is highly likely that even when the GM crops are finally released for on-farm use/production, most farmers will still not adopt them.

This is because there are several constraints that hinder farmers (especially smallholders) from using modern technology; and these must be squarely addressed if the passing of the National Biosafety Act 2017 is to make a real difference. The constraints to technology adoption include: availability of low quality seed of improved crop varieties on the market (due to weak enforcement of regulations), and limited access to improved seed largely emanating from absence of local seed suppliers and the high costs of these varieties.

In addition to usual constraints to technology adoption, the fact that many Ugandans still have some misconceptions about GM crops cannot be ignored. There are fears that: production and distribution of seed of GM crops will be monopolized by some companies, hence making it extremely expensive (unaffordable); seed of GM crops can only be planted once—recycled GM seed cannot germinate; adoption of GM crops will eliminate (out compete) traditional crops; GM food is not safe for eating; and GM crop production is not environmentally friendly.

While reliable information that would help eliminate people’s fears and concerns about GM crops exists, it has not been widely disseminated. At the national level, already some awareness creation and sensitization about GM crops has taken place. For example, in February this year (2017), the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) organised a forum that centred on: Uganda’s readiness for environmental release of GM crops, emerging gene techniques, GM crop experiments in Uganda, progress and results.

Such discussions need to trickle down to the common Ugandan, especially farmers. Thus, the UNCST through the National Biosafety Committee should as well spearhead the process of ensuring that all stakeholders (particularly farmers and consumers of agricultural products) are made aware of the National Biosafety Act 2017 and what the Act means for them.


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