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April 06, 2008

Uganda testing GM banana

Uganda’s biotechnology programme, which started with the setting up of a biotech lab in 2000, has developed and is now testing a transgenic strain of banana against the Sigatoga disease.

It has also varieties of cotton and cassava that are resistant to boll worms and cassava mosaic disease.

“The technology is being tested against all known risks but we are talking about a 7-10 year cycle so we are not quite ready to make announcements now,” said Charles Mugoya, the manager for agro-biodiversity and biosafety programme at the Association for Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa. However, Uganda and Africa in general have not made much progress in the commercial application of genetically modified crops.

According to the International Association for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, at least 12 developing countries had adopted biotech crops in commercial farming by the end of 2007 but in Africa, only South Africa, with some 1.8 million hectares of the global total of 114.3 million hectares, featured in the global list.

“As developing countries, we need to make up our mind about biotechnology quickly or else we shall be forced to sit back like we have done in the past and watch the world pass by,” said Mr Mugoya during the launch of the 2007 status report.

The 12 developing countries that plant biotech crops compares with the 11 industrialised countries doing so, although the US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and China maintained their position as the major users of biotech crops.

However, just four crops — soybeans, cotton, maize and canola — account for the bulk of acreage under GM crops.

GM crops have created controversy whenever they are planted with consumer groups opposing them across the world. But according to Dr Mugoya, the terminator technology that was at the heart of opposition to the crops, especially in developing countries, had been abandoned by lead promoter Monsanto.

“This was because of the controversies surrounding it so that countries can now focus on the potential benefits of biotechnology in terms of assuring food security and continued survival of the human race,” he said.

The terminator technology, which did not allow farmers to replant seeds after harvesting, was seen as a threat to food security among Africa’s subsistence producers, who would be perpetually tied to multinational gene banks for sustenance of agriculture.

Experts, however, argue that even without terminator technology, yields suffer significant drops when the same seed stock is replanted over and over; and only safer forms of biotechnology will assure good yields.

Like Burkina Faso and Egypt, which are expected to approve biotech crops soon, Uganda is moving towards embracing GM crops with the National Council for Science and Technology saying it expects a policy framework by the end of the year.

Experts say while its benefits are immense, countries must carefully evaluate risks and have mitigation measures in place to guard against dangers such as environmental contamination that can result from gene-flows, emergence of superweeds that are resistant to existing herbicides, loss of biodiversity through genetic erosion and toxicity that results in allergies.

Dr Mugoya says that to preclude the possibility of commercial exploitation of poor producers, biotech research in developing countries should be publicly funded and run in government owned facilities so that the products are accessible to producers at no profit to commercial interests.

The East African

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