Scientists in Uganda will soon start confined trials of genetically modified strains of Irish potato designed to be resistant to Phytophthora infestans, the fungus that causes potato blight, now devastating the crop in the west of the country.
Dr Andrew Kigundu of Kawanda Agricultural Research Laboratories told The EastAfrican that laboratory tests on the GM potato shows signs of resistance against the disease and it is now time to be transferred to the natural environment for further trials.
“Data from our lab experiments shows that a combination of R-genes from wild potatoes have different levels of resistance to the disease, leading to crop immunity,” said the lead scientist.
Dr Kigundu added that, with assistance from their Kenyan counterpart, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, the centre is now seeking approval from Uganda’s National Biosafety Committee to carry out confined field trials. He said two potato varieties, each with 12 lines, have so far been identified for confined field trials.
If approved, the late blight-resistant Irish potato will become the latest crop to undergo trials for the genetically engineered strains in Uganda, even as scientists in the country continue to differ over the proposed law to regulate production and commercialisation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The trials will be conducted at Kachwekano Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute in south-western Uganda.
The National Biosafety Bill, which intends to introduce biotechnology seeds and allow commercial release of GM products from ongoing research into the markets, is before parliament.
Uganda has already approved and carried out a field trial on banana to test black sigatoka disease resistance (2007-2009); two trials to evaluate Bacterium throngesis (a bacteria that protects crops against disease attack) and roundup ready cotton (2009-2010); a trial to test cassava mosaic virus resistance (2009-2010); and two ongoing trials to test banana bio-fortified with vitamin A and iron, and also testing resistance to banana bacterial wilt.
Though some of the studies on GM crops have been completed, the crops cannot be released for commercial production.
Abel Arinaitwe, a pathologist at the Kachwekano institute, said late blight is one of the major diseases of economic importance to potato production in Uganda, causing yield losses of 40 to 70 per cent.
Potato blight has rapidly progressed over the potato-growing areas of Kenya and Uganda since it was first reported in East Africa in 1941, according to CropLife Foundation. The disease is greatly affecting Irish potato production in south-western Uganda.
The initial symptom of blight is a rapidly spreading, watery rot of leaves, which soon collapse, shrivel and turn brown.
In humid weather, a fine white fungal growth may be seen around the edge of the lesions on the underside of the leaves.
If unchecked, the disease reaches the tubers, which develop a reddish-brown decay below the skin, firm at first but soon developing into a soft rot as the tissues are invaded by bacteria. Early attacks of blight may not be visible on tubers but any infected tubers will rot in store.