“Seed security is food security” is something of a mantra in developing world agronomy circles. In Uganda, the adage is gradually being put into action by promoting the use of indigenous small grains threatened with extinction by the dominance of maize, both in fields and on dinner tables.
Sadly, a number of crop varieties that were commonplace in different places of Uganda have since disappeared or are on the verge of disappearing, asserts Mr. David O.O. Obong, the Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
Mr. Obong insists despite the natural challenges, Uganda can ably become the region’s food basket backed by seed conservation efforts and some of the works by the government’s scientists and Innovators especially surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS) at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), about 25km north of Kampala city.
The Institute is responsible for generating and improving seeds that are used by farmers nationwide for better crop yields. It has large stretches of research trial farmlands of mangoes, sweet potatoes, hay, cassava and bananas, among other food crops.
Currently, the institute is centred on research in crops that are predominantly grown by the majority of Ugandan farmers. The government scientists modify such seeds to ensure there is value addition for higher yields and better quality for Ugandans.
Obong and his compatriot Dr. Asea Godfrey, the Director of the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Namulonge recently chaired a meeting and a tour explaining to a group of journalists about the importance of Science, Technology and Innovation to moving Uganda to a middle income status, meeting the Vision 2040 AND NDP II.
The Ministry of Science says indigenous seed varieties should be preserved because they are part of the cultural heritage of various communities in Uganda.
According to Mr. Obong, storage of these seedlings will help replenish gene banks if they are destroyed during conflicts and natural disasters.
“Gene banks are not seed museums but the repositories of vital living resources that are used in the battle against major threats to food production,” he says.
Government will further establish other centres such as community seed banks and the newly established conservation facility at the NaCRRI that is conserving vegetative propagated crops such as cassava, even as they improve on the indegenous seeds to cope with climate change.
Community seed banks tend to work along the same lines as money banks: farmers take out loans of seeds, which in many cases are donated by the local community, and then repay the loan in kind with interest after they harvest their crops.
This is because they can “secure improved access to, and availability of, diverse, locally adapted crops and varieties, and enhance related indigenous knowledge and skills in plant management” – including seed selection and distribution.
“Currently East Africa is a net importer of food but has sufficient land and water resource to be at least self-sufficient, if not an exporter. By providing farmers with the required knowledge and technology this shift can be achieved,” Mr. Obong contends.
With improvement of crop varieties like maize that were enhanced at NaCRRI, Uganda has been able to post surplus maize harvests, leading to 60 per cent maize exports to neighbouring countries.
NCRRI recently conducted a survey to ascertain the extent of extinction of crop varieties focused on two crops; cassava and potatoes but showed many varieties had disappeared or on the margins of extinction. The endangered varieties include ebwanatereka, ofumbachai, magana in eastern Uganda, okonyoladak and oroyokiraa in northern Uganda, revealed Dr Barbara Zawedde, a researcher with NCRRI.
“Pests and diseases; changes in dietary and use habits; pollution; population expansion exacerbating land fragmentation and introduction of new high yielding varieties,” are some of the factors leading to massive extinction of varieties, Dr Zawedde said.
Most of the seed collections by NaCRRI in Namulonge are held in trust that is under long term storage for the benefit of humanity and free from any intellectual property restrictions. Anybody can access them for the good of mankind.
“We are proud that sixty per cent of farmers in Uganda grow seeds generated and improved at NaCRRI,” said Dr. Apio Hellen Beatrice.
Dr. Apio says that government wants to start a demonstration farm for farmers to teach people how to practise modern farming.
They want to install more irrigation systems which will help farmers during the dry season. With irrigation systems, they will be able to have continuous seasons throughout the year.
About one thing, however, Dr. Asea Godfrey is adamant: “I don’t believe we can address the issues of nutrition security, poverty, and health in Uganda without relying on African indigenous crops. With a soaring food crisis as a result of changing Ugandan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize in my opinion would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought tolerant.”
How war on fall armyworms was won
In western and eastern Uganda, a devastating cycle of drought and flood reflects the worst that climate change has to offer. These and other more insiduous impacts of warming temperatures threaten the health and survival of the nation’s poorest and most at-risk inhabitants, namely women and children.
The recent outbreak of crop pests like armyworms has brought to the fore not only the farmers’ perceptions but also the challenges of sustainably dealing with the pests that threaten to undo the anticipated bumper harvest. With the armyworms having been reported to have broken out in most parts of the country in mid-March, any attack was adjudged to be the crop-eating caterpillars.
It has turned out that the pest which attacked Ugandan fields also advancing across several African countries. The pest which ravaged maize in here also left a trail of damage in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ghana, with reports also suggesting Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia are affected. Experts suggest the armyworms originated from the Americas and, admittedly, most farmers do not know how to manage the pest.
In Uganda, Government acted very quickly by supplying pesticides which proved potent against armyworms and stalk borers – thanks to President Yoweri Museveni’s intervention. “We thank the President [Museveni] for his bold decision to make it possible to receive drugs under Government sponsorship. Ittakes political will to make such a bold decision in helping Ugandans to grow their food – without whom most people would have gone hungry,” said Mr. Obong, who has served in several government ministries in a career spanning over four decades. He adds, “Ordinarily, Government would have left it to individual farmers. Any right-thinking Ugandan should thank the President. There will be no starvation.”
Uganda is among countries that have not embraced genetically modified technology. “I have been involved in the development of a highly effective bio pesticide against African armyworm regionally. But this still needs to go through the commercialisation and registration process, which is both costly and time-consuming,” Dr. Zawedde added. GM technology could be the sustainable solution to the problem of these destructive pests.
She also said that they want to give people a chance to choose what they prefer to grow and to eat.
According to the South African based African Center for Biodiversity (ACB), Uganda has the largest number of GMO crops under testing by NARO. The organisations’s researchers are currently undertaking agricultural biotechnology research on food security crops, like banana, for resistance against bacterial wilt and improved nutrition, cassava for resistance to cassava brown streak and cassava mosaic disease, and maize for drought resistance.
Other crops under research include rice for more effective use of nutrients and increased productivity, sweet potato for resistance to pests, and Irish potato for resistance to potato blight.
What is a GMO?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Most GMOs have been engineered to withstand the direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide.
There are four types of seeds or plants; indigenous, hybrid, improved, and GMO. However many people can’t differentiate between the last three.