Dennis Katungi

Agriculture finds itself engrossed in a heated debate over genetically modified (GM) crops globally. This debate, which is not new - features scientists, politicians, economists and even religious leaders and others.  In order to gain more insights on what appears to be a complicated subject, Uganda Media Centre recently arranged a tour of NARO as well as the National Agricultural Research Laboratories at Kawanda and Namulonge.
 The one day interaction with Ugandan scientists at the cutting edge of the technology was very informative.   I personally learnt a lot about Genetically Modified Crops and the science behind them which I would like to share in this piece.  Independent opinions not influenced by any vested interests matter a lot in this debate.
What are GM crops?  These are plants that have a combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology. Such crops are sometimes known as transgenic crops.  GM crops may contain  genes that have been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring them though natural pollination.  The resulting plant is said to be “genetically modified” from its original state by domestication, selection and controlled breeding over long periods of time.   A team led by Prof. Tushemereirwe, the Director of NARL took us step by step thru the entire process of plant bleeding including Laboratory observations and field tours.
What is the big fuss about and why do people feel so strongly about GM crops?  The immediate answer is that the technology is fairly new and most of the research on GM crops has been carried out in developed countries, mainly in North America, Latin America and Europe.  There are also variant vested interests which confuse the average person. Many people do not understand the science and have this phobia about ‘ill intentions of the super Powers’.  
Those who do – including some Scientists are aligned with vested commercial interests.  It is also important to note that many developing countries including Uganda have now established the capacity for genetic engineering and they are doing a commendable job.  We need to trust and support our scientists because they are working for Uganda to own its patents and technology so that we are not beholden to foreigners.
Why make GM crops?  Traditionally, plant breeders exchange genes between two plants to produce offspring that have desired traits.  This is done by transferring the male (pollen) of one plant to the female organ of another plant.  This cross breeding is limited to exchanges between the same or very closely related species.  It can also take a long time to achieve desired results and frequently, characteristics of interest do not exist in related species.
GM technology enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of living sources, not just from within the crop species or from closely related plants.  This powerful tool allows plant breeders to do faster what they have been doing for years – generate superior plant varieties like our scientists are doing with bananas and cassava at Kawanda and Namulonge.  This technology expands the possibilities beyond the limits imposed by conventional plant breeding.
How will Uganda benefit from this technology? GM crops have potential to boost food, fuel and fiber production which will accelerate economic growth and boost foreign exchange earnings.  In 2013 alone, South Africa and Burkina Faso earned US$ 218.5 million and $90.2 respectively from GM crops.  Additionally, bio-fortified GM crops can help reduce malnutrition in the country, e.g., vitamin A and iron enhanced banana.
Can the use of GM technology benefit the environment?  GM crops can reduce environmental degradation by reducing pesticide application and destructive tillage methods.  Biotechnology can be used to clean the environment through application of technologies such as bioremediation (use of organisms that take up soluble wastes from the soil, production of environmentally friendly fuels as well as use of biodegradable plastics.
Why should Uganda advance biotechnology use in Agriculture?
Uganda is facing devastating challenges such as pests, and diseases that destroy farmer’s crops and some of these can most effectively be overcome through use of biotechnology.  Uganda’s unique agro-climatic conditions make it a hot spot for crop and animal diseases.  We should support our Scientists to find a solution not hamper their efforts.
Have GM crops benefited farmers in other parts of the world?
By 2013, more than 18 million farmers worldwide were growing GM crops, most of them from developing countries.  GM cotton transformed the cotton industry in India from a net importer to a net-exporter of cotton in only 5 years.  Sudan, South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso are already reaping real economic benefits from GM technologies.  Ugandan farmers can also enjoy these benefits.  Let’s stop this scare mongering and do the right thing.  I urge our parliamentarians to pass the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill – which will provide the regulatory framework for research, development, use and commercialization.

 – Communications & Media Relations Manager UMC