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July 01, 2008

Uganda to begin testing of GM cotton

Agricultural scientists are preparing to begin testing genetically modified cotton in Uganda this year.

The bt cotton will be tried on experimental plots beginning November before being released to farmers for mass cultivation.

Care will be taken to ensure that the bt cotton does not crossbreed with other varieties during the trial period, says Dr Thomas Areke, director of the National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute at Serere in Soroti district, which will host the study.

Other experimental plots have been prepared at Busitema University.

Whereas agricultural scientists say the development will protect cotton from pests, significantly improve yields and make farmers richer, environmental activists are up in arms.

Areke says Uganda's cotton has been steadily declining and introduction of the genetically modified variety would help reverse the trend. Annual cotton production has declined from 467,000 bales in 1969 to 60,000 bales last year, according to the Cotton Development Authority. A number of small holder farmers are abandoning cotton due to various challenges such as poor yields, pests and low prices. In turn, a number of ginners, including Lira Millers, hitherto one of the largest in East Africa, stopped operation due to lack of raw materials.

According to Areke, BT cotton is designed to resist the ballworm, a notorious cotton pest that is devastating the crop countrywide. In some cotton growing districts especially in Apac, Soroti, Busia, Tororo and Kasese districts, studies have indicated that the ball worm has reduced yields by almost half, according to NARO researchers. Under the same study, another gene will also be introduced into local cotton to suffocate weeds that might grow around the cotton plants.

Under the current regulations by the Uganda National Council for science and technology, which Cabinet approved recently, trials are supposed to be done in an enclosed environment.

So far, the only genetically modified crop trial going on in Uganda is that of bananas, restricted to experimental plots at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Kawanda, Wakiso district.

Monsanto, a US based biotechnology company, has agreed to help Ugandan scientists make BT cotton by inserting into the crop, a gene derived from a soil-borne bacteria called Bacillus thurigensis. The gene will then enable the crop to suffocate the ballworm, the way the bacteria itself would have done.

Mosanto says BT cotton has delivered major economic and environmental benefits in USA. In the first ten years of use (1996-2005), the farmers who used genetically modified (Bt) insect resistant technology in the United States, derived a total of nearly $9.9 billion worth of extra farm income, with much of this benefit going to small, resource poor farmers in developing countries (especially from the use of Bt cotton),according to Monsanto. Over this 10-year-period, insecticide use reduced dramatically.

Areke said they expect similar benefits in Uganda, but cannot let farmers take up the new variety before they test it in experimental plots. "We have the mandate to develop technologies to boost production but the decision on whether to adopt or not for market or environmental reasons is not ours," says Areke.

At Serere and Busitema, where BT cotton will be tried out, no other cotton varieties will be allowed within 200 metres. This, says Areke, will prevent BT cotton from contaminating the local varieties with its genes before it passes the scientific test. "Cotton pollen is heavy and can not be carried by wind. However, we still have to take into account all the requirements for the trial," Areke said.

But Chebet Maikut, a farmer and former President of the Uganda National Farmers Federation, says scientists should not do the research on their own without involving farmers. Farmers are more likely to adopt a new breed or technology if they are involved in developing it, he argues.

Environmental activists, on the other hand, say introduction of genetically modified cotton is not the solution.

Godber Tumushabe, the Executive Director of Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment said such a study was unnecessary since the Government had failed with the extension delivery mechanism to farmers.

"Products of genetic modification are at the bottom of interventions that can be done to salvage the sector. It has clearly been established that with good management skills, farmers can improve yields and fight both pests and diseases," Tumushabe said. He told a press conference that bt cotton research should be put on hold until the Plant Protection Bill is passed in parliament.

The bill seeks to regulate the protection of plant diversity in the country from exploitation that may endanger their well being.

Despite such protests, the trial will go ahead because it was approved by the National Biosafety Committee. Arthur Makara, secretary to the committee, was quoted as saying the trial was approved as early as August last year.

"The data they (scientists) will collect will inform policy decisions in case of a request for commercialisation of bt cotton in Uganda in the future, or in the case of legal or illegal transboundary movements of Bt cotton through Uganda," he said.

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