Close to five years of being on the shelves of Uganda’s Parliament, lawmakers have finally passed the Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill into law which signals the country’s journey to transforming its food and agriculture sector from small scale rudimentary to large scale and purposeful production, National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) said.
Dr Imelda Kashaija, deputy director general in charge of agricultural technology promotion at NARO revealed that for some time, Ugandan scientists were worried that ongoing research on genetically modified crops may have to be put on hold due to lack of a regulatory framework to guide its production.
“With the regulations coming in place, now we (Uganda) are ready to use biotechnology to solve the persistent challenges of hunger and malnutrition, among others that continue to plague the populace,” Dr Kashaija said during a meeting at Colline Hotel Mukono recently.
Whereas there has been controversy over agricultural biotechnology from sections of Uganda’s civil society, it is widely applied in the country in the medical, industrial and environmental management sectors.
“Do you remember the attack on the maize crop by the fall army worm, we surely have our own problems so it would be unfortunate if we didn’t take up GMOs,” she added.
According to NARO, GMO maize will not be susceptible to attack from the fall army worm or any other pests and diseases.
Other proponents for genetic engineering hold the view that growing GMO crops will offer remedies to the fall armyworm. The downside is that they cannot be replanted and, every crop season, farmers must buy new seeds.
“NARO will continue to release conventional varieties and it is those who want GMOs that will be given.
Dr Kashaija said whereas GM crops do not pose any health risk to human beings.
“Ugandans should not fear GMOs will not be forced on people and there will be proper education of the farmers because GMOs have so many benefits that we can enjoy,” she insisted.
“As far as Uganda is concerned, we are safe to use GMOs as we have the science, infrastructure and national interests to serve.”
So far, just two countries on the continent have commercialized transgenic crops: Sudan, which grows GM cotton, and South Africa, which grows GM cotton, maize, and soybean.
The GMO Bill has now been forwarded to President Yoweri Museveni for assent.
Museveni, who has in the past expressed support for the bill, is expected to sign it into law within a month. “It is a great, great achievement,” says Erostus Nsubuga, a biotechnology entrepreneur working on GM bananas at Agro-Genetic Technologies, a company in Buloba, Uganda.
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.