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October 23, 2008

Uganda a step closer to testing gene-modified cotton

by Lominda Afedraru

Scientists in Uganda will soon begin testing the genetically modified cotton in their laboratories to prove whether they are resistant to cotton wilt and other related cotton diseases, which has been destroying the conventional cotton plant.

The government recently gave a go ahead for scientists to carry out the research, just as they have been doing with other crops such as cassava and the East African Highland banana.

However, according the Regional coordinator for the Bio-safety System programme, Dr Thereza Sengoba, scientists will carry out this test in their laboratories and later confined filed trials will be conducted at two sites, in Western Uganda at Mubuku and Eastern Uganda at Serere.

This is because the two regions are considered to be representing major cotton growing areas with different agro- ecologies. Dr Senbgoba said this while presenting a paper at the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) on the topic, Evolution of agro- biotechnology and the challenges of seed system in Africa.

The British introduced traditional Cotton to Uganda in 1903. It quickly established itself as Uganda’s export crop and became the main foreign exchange earner. Cotton production in Uganda is mainly by peasant farmers and it is affected by a number of factors ranging from poor management of insects, pests, weeds, diseases and soil. This is the reason why scientists are trying a research on the genetically modified cotton hoping it may give yields compared to the traditional cotton.

According to data information by the scientists, in 1994 the government under the Economic recovery programme decided to revive and support cotton production so as to diversify sources for foreign exchange earnings and avoidance on coffee.

Structural changes were put in place and the Cotton Development Organisation was charged with overseeing production and marketing. The Cotton industry was also liberalised and services were privatised. This created conducive atmosphere, which enabled growth of the private sector such as Uganda Ginners and Cotton Export Association, Oil Millers and Textile millers.

Despite this heavy investment in the cotton industry, research has shown that cotton production has stagnated at about 200,000 metric tones in the past several years. There are a number of constraints still affecting cotton production and these include among others, pests such as bollworms, weeds and soil fertility.

The traditional cotton requires farmers to carry under the cotton plantation five to six times which farmers find tedious. In view of the above constraints, scientists have been looking for options to solve them in a bid to achieve the targeted amount of cotton production.

This is the reason why they are venturing into research in the genetically modified cotton and one of the biotechnologies they have identified is the Ball guard11, which will be used to evaluate the modified cotton varieties by crossing the genes extracted from a soil bacterium called B. Thrugiensis to control the bollworms.

According to the scientists, this genetically modified cotton will reduce the frequency of spraying cotton from six times to two to three times depending on the availability of secondary pests thus reducing on environmental pollution and health issues.

Genetically modified Cotton is now grown in nine countries worldwide with the three leading countries as China, India and US. Studies from the World Bank indicate that if countries adopt the genetically modified cotton, they stand to benefit more than they would with the conventional cotton under the Initiative of the World Trade Organisation. Genitically modified cotton is one of the upcoming seeds with others being maize, banana, sorghum and cassava.

The Monitor

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