News Column

To take biotechnology to the farmer, more awareness is needed

July 29, 2014

Nassib Mugwanya -1



This year, the theme of the Source of the Nile Agricultural Show, which is held annually in Jinja, was "Take it to the Farmer". It was in commemoration of what would have been the 100th birthday of Dr Norman Borlaug, who won a Noble Prize in Agriculture. He is also credited for the Green Revolution in Asia.

As the theme went, there was a lot taken to farmers in terms of exhibition at the Jinja exhibition grounds. If it had been one's first time at the show, you would have mistaken it to be more of a trade show than an agricultural show.

New element

Any farmer without a priority list of what to see in terms of agricultural exhibits, would be lost for options. The whole place was like a market place, with every exhibitor striving to have farmers visit their stall. At the end of the show, an average farmer would have visited a minimum of 10 stalls.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a farmer and imagine how much information you would have taken in one day? As usual, most of this information was on various aspects such as agronomy, agro-inputs, farm implements, crop and animal products.

Unlike the usual exhibitions, this year, there was something different; exhibiting information on biotechnology.

A number of organisations working on biotechnology such as Uganda Biosciences Centre (UBIC), Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, among others, exhibited their various works on biotechnology. Unlike other exhibitors who sold mostly agro-related products, this stall majorly concentrated on enlightening participants on biotechnology and biosafety.

Exhibits ranged from posters showcasing various biotech/genetically modified (GM) crops under research in Uganda, to various crop improvement methods such as tissue culture.

Many questions As someone who was inviting people to come to this stall, I was eager to hear the kind of questions farmers asked. Some of the most frequently asked questions that I heard were; whether there are already GM crops on market in Uganda, and whether they are safe for human consumption.

The kind of questions asked tells a lot about how much people know about this subject. In my impression, a good number of people still confused hybrids with GMs, and also barely knew about the basics of various crop improvement methods.

One student confessed to have heard on radio that GM crops cause cancer and should not be accepted by Ugandan farmers. To quote her, "After learning they are unsafe to eat, I have been so biased that even when I hear something good about GMs, I take it to be lies".

Empowered This student is no different from many other people who already have pre-conceived biases on biotechnology, that even if you presented facts to them, they will doubt them and even label you to have been bought to talk about biotechnology.

We currently live in an information jungle where there is an enormous amount of information out there in print media, on radio and TV, and through the internet. To an average farmer, it becomes so hard to know which kind of information to trust on highly technical aspects of agriculture such as biotechnology.

We all know that old adage which says information is power, and we can only have empowered farmers if they have access to timely, accurate, and reliable information. If you are a farmer or working with any farmers' organisation, some of the trusted sources of information include national research organisations, top-notch scientific journals, national science academies, and eminent authorities/ bodies such as World Health Organisation.

One may want to disprove to you that scientists can be corrupted, and it is very hard to trust them anymore. Yes, it is true that can scientists can be corrupted, but science as a method cannot be corrupted, as it has safeguards for this through double-blind experiments, and peer reviews.

Good news Unfortunately, an average farmer with basic primary education rarely gets access to such valuable sources of information. Absurdly, also, is that some organisations or enlightened individuals who can access this information, choose to feed lies about biotechnology to the unsuspecting farmer.

UBIC located at National Crop Resources Research Institute has come to fill in this information void. The good news is that this is a not-for profit government entity, whose vision is to be a one-stop centre for information sharing on agricultural research in Uganda.

Whether we like it or not, the current big challenges affecting smallholder farmers, such pests and diseases, food insecurity, climate change, cannot be addressed with only yesterday's technology.

Biotechnology laws in uganda

1964: The Food and Drugs Act 1964 handles standards for foods and drugs. Any research or products of biotechnology regarding genetically modified foods and drugs have to meet the strict requirements. The Plant Protection Act 1964 regulates the introduction of exotic plants and micro-organisms. It, however, does not directly support biotechnology R & D.

1990: Uganda National Council for Science and Technology Statute established the Council to formulate policies and strategies for science and technology in all fields including biotechnology and biosafety.

1992: The National Agricultural Research Organisation Statute established the organisation. The law covers broad areas for handling agricultural research includingbiotechnology research.

1994: Uganda Agricultural Seeds and Plant Statute provides for promotion and regulation of plant breeding and variety releases, multiplication, import and quality assurance of seeds and planting materials. Biotechnology R & D is implicit.

1996: National Biosafety Committee set up by UNCST on matters concerning biotechnology and biosafety.

1999: Draft Biosafety Regulations 1999 is so far the only comprehensive legislation governing biotechnology issues, and specifically biosafety in Uganda. The Regulations contain provisions on risk assessment, risk management, unintentional release and emergency measures, identification and labelling, exports of GMOs or products of GMOs, among others.

2001: Uganda signed the Cartegena Protocol in 2000 and ratified it in 2001.This was the first legally binding instrument to emerge from the Convention on Biodiversity.

2001: National Science and Technology Policy 2001 provides for the judicious use of biotechnology for sustainable development.

2001: Animal Breeding Act 2001 promotes the development and use of animal genetic resources that are more tolerant to disease and environmental stress. This envisages use of biotechnology R & D and practices.

2001: National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) Act established Naads to promote food security, nutrition and household incomes through increased productivity. This implies the use of biotechnology R & D to meet its objectives.

2003: National biotechnologies laboratory established at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute.

2004: Draft policy on National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy developed by the UNCST currently the undergoing legislative process.

Source: Agricultural Biotechnology in Uganda by Yona Baguma and Theresa Sengooba

The writer is a Graduate Research Assistant School of Agricultural Sciences Makerere University

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com


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Source: Daily Monitor, The (Uganda)


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