Is biotechnology the solution to our farming challenges?

A Bill is stuck in Parliament yet field trials go on at research stations. Lominda Afedraru examines the current status of biotechnology in Uganda.

There has been controversy over genetically modified (GM)rops or animals, genetic engineering and other products derived from application of biotechnology, especially in agriculture. It involves consumers, farmers, biotech companies, government and non-governmental organisations, as well as scientists.
Key areas of controversy are labelling of GM products, the role of government regulators, objectivity of scientific research, health and environment concerns, impact on farmers, and meeting food demand and related issues.

While there is concern that GM crops may be harmful, there is broad scientific consensus that food on the market, which is derived from these crops, poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food.
Safety assessment by regulatory bodies starts with an evaluation of whether the food substantially equivalent to its transgenic counterparts already deemed fit for human consumption. So far, no ill effects have been documented though labelling of GM products is required in many countries. This is for consumers to make a choice. However, it is not the case in US, a major producer of transgenic products.

Those opposed to GMOs and biotechnology (in agriculture) such as aocacy groups and organic food consumers’ associations, for example, Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace, contend that the risks have not been adequately identified and managed. They have also questioned the objectivity of regulatory authorities.
In Uganda, the controversies are mostly centred around the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, which come up for debate in various fora. It is currently before Parliament.

Those for the passing of the Bill into law, urge the MPs to act expenditiously while those against are lobbying for a stay, amendments or outright rejection.
Interestingly, research on biotechnology has been going on for several years and some of the policies, structures or mechanisms for regulation have been set up over a couple of decades. Though most have implicitly provided for biotechnology, the Bill is the most explicit mechanism developed to deal with the issue.
As regards the other part of the equation, scientists at National Agricultural Research Organisation’s (Naro) institutes are undertaking research and field trials on a number of priority crops.

It is noteworthy that there is another angle to the anti-GMObiotech side of the debate. This was recently revealed in an article in a UK newspaper, The Independent. Here are excerpts:
“Donors to one of Britain’s largest humanitarian aid charities have been unwittingly funding an aggressive anti-GM food campaign in Africa that misleadingly warns farmers that eating the crops could give them cancer.
A senior official working for Action Aid in Uganda told The Independent that the charity shows farmers pictures of rats with tumours as part of its campaign to prevent GM technology from being made legal in the country. Scientists say the campaign spreads fears that have no basis in fact.

Uganda in the spotlight
Action Aid has also commissioned radio commercials warning of the dangers of eating GM foods despite a ruling by the World Health Organisation that they have ‘no effects on human health’.
The move is particularly controversial because the GM projects being developed in Uganda are philanthropic and supported by NGOs such as subs have turned the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Action Aid UK’s most recent accounts show it raises around £47m a year in Britain a lot of it from small donations and gives £1.43m in grants to Action Aid Uganda to support its local work programmes.
The UK arm of the charity told The Independent that the health warnings which have been issued for at least 16 months ‘should not have happened and have been stopped.’ ”
Efforts to reach Action Aid Uganda for a comment for this feature were futile. Repeated calls were not returned despite prior promises by officials contacted to do so.
But The Independent article, however, caused concerns among the scientific community. Some of those conducting research in the Naro institutes contend that such move by NGOs is meant to hinder progress of the research using biotechnology to develop solutions to challenges faced by farmers.
Dr Jerome Kubiriba, who heads the banana programme at National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL), in Kawanda, says it is better to allow competition minus causing injury to a technology, which is trying to provide another option for agricultural production.
For the case of Africa, matters concerning food production should be looked at from a different perspective.
The major agricultural produce in Uganda namely, banana, cassava, maize, rice, poultry, and animal products are traded within the country and, sometimes, eastern Africa. But technology has to be applied to breed better varieties that can be traded beyond this.
To him, Africa, and Uganda in particular, needs the application of biotechnology to develop agricultural products more than the developed world. This is because the continent needs higher food production for a rapidly growing population.
Dr Geofrey Arinaitwe, who is in charge of breeding Vitamin A- and iron-rich at NARL, points out that the information used by opponents of biotechnology showing rats alleged to have died from consuming GMOs is misleading.
He explains that scientists usually use these rats to conduct a specific study. If it is for a case of a cancer vaccine, scientists can breed those rats to develop cancer and be used to test the vaccine.
But for the study that claimed rats were fed on GM food and they developed cancer, he said it distorted information has since been retracted.
Dr Jimmy Lamo, who heads the rice breeding programme at National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge, explains that there is no need to tell lies in science.
For the rice research which his team is carrying out, the aim is a transgenic variety that will be able to grow in soils with less nutrients. The gene being used has already been used in canola for increased yields. This particular gene was obtained from barley.

Well known procedures
There is no hazard because before the crop is taken to the field, the team takes precaution in the breeding process in the laboratory through the screen house and finally to the field. This applies to other crops bred using transgenic means.
Dr Lamo contends that international bodies like World Health Organisation(WHO) and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) know that if there is an issue with a particular food, they have right to make a decision that it should not be traded in the market. Such a decision has not yet been made as regards GM products.

In the biotechnology research going on at Naro, it is the responsibility of the scientists to tell aantages and disaantages before the product is released to farmers.
Worldwide, the procedure of releasing GM products is clear. Before release, issues of safety are taken care of and this will apply to the products being developed in Uganda.

SOURCE: Daily Monitor


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