Ugandan scientists are worried that ongoing research on genetically modified crops may have to be put on hold due to lack of a regulatory framework to guide its production.
Andrew Kiggundu, a senior research officer at National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) said that trials on bananas, cassava, maize and potatoes may have to wait until the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, currently before parliament, is passed into law.
“The delay in passing the law on biotechnology is a serious concern to us because part of the support that we are getting through foreign collaborations could be curtailed, thereby stagnating the research,” Dr Kiggundu said during the launch of the Global Genetically Modified Organisms Report 2014 in Kampala on April 7.
Foreign organisations that Uganda is working with in developing genetically engineered crops include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, United States Agency for International Development (USAid), and universities such as Arizona State University and Cornell University in the US, University of Leeds in the UK, and Queensland University in Australia.
Uganda had planned to commercialise GM cassava by 2016 which would help fight the mosaic virus as well as protect maize against stem borers and produce drought-tolerant varieties by 2017. But the absence of a biotech law stands in the way of these plans.
Uganda has also carried out field trials on bananas to test resistance to the black sigatoka disease (2007-2009). The country is carrying out two trials on banana bio-fortified with vitamin A and iron, and testing resistance to the devastating banana bacterial wilt.
Titus Alicai, the principal scientist in the cassava research, said there is an urgent need for a law on how genetically modified products should be developed and disseminated.
“Communication is regulated, electricity is regulated, so why not come up with a law on developing genetically engineered crops?” asked Dr Alicai. ““With a law in place, scientists will not wake up one day and just because they’re knowledgeable, start producing GMOs.”
The fears of the Ugandan scientists are informed by the country’s failure to commercialise Bt cotton last year after Monsanto, a US-based company involved in genetically modified crops, withdrew funding for the research, citing the lack of a regulatory framework to guide production and commercialisation of the crop.
Monsanto and NARO had successfully developed a cotton variety that is resistant to herbicides and bollworm (2009-2010) at the National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute in Serere District, and Mobuku Prison Farm in Kasese District.
Dr James Mutende, the Minister of State for Industry and Technology, said the government is planning to invite scientists for a roundtable discussion to iron out the fears of the unknown, especially among those opposed to the technology.
The co-ordinator of the Uganda Biotechnology Information, Dr Barbra Zawedde, said whereas GM crops do not pose any health risk to human beings, they are likely to be planted or sold in the country unknowingly especially from the neighbouring states such as Sudan, which has commercialised Bt cotton.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the land under GM crops grew 3.5 per cent in 2014 to 181.5 million hectares, up from 175.2 million hectares in 2013.
For the third consecutive year, developing countries — in Latin America, Asia and Africa — planted more GM crops accounting for 53 per cent or 96 million hectares compared with the industrialised countries.
The five leading developing countries in growing GM crops in the three continents, according to the ISAAA report, are China and India in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, and South Africa on the African continent, whose hectares increased by 47 per cent to 84.7 million hectares in 2014, compared with the previous year.
Africa, too, continued to make progress in growing GM crops with Sudan increasing its Bt cotton hectareage substantially by 46 per cent to 90,000 hectares, and South Africa and Burkina Faso growing 2.7 million and 500,000 hectares of GM crops respectively.
Other African countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria, have conducted confined field trials on various crops including maize, sorghum and sweet potatoes.