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Uganda suffers from ‘blocked’ agricultural innovations

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Uganda suffers from ‘blocked’ agricultural innovations

Implications of Country’s failure to translate her leadership into tangible success in the region

Scientists and farmers admire the new blight resistant potato variety at Kacwekano research station

Scientists and farmers admire the new blight resistant potato variety at Kacwekano research station

Uganda has once again been caught napping in a fiercely competitive race where neighbouring countries are wrestling to grab a better piece of the market pie while also trying to lift millions of their people from the shackles of poverty and starvation.

It may sound like a piece of drama, but alas! It is serious business where Uganda has invested billions of shillings to develop solutions to pervasive problems that are strangling majority of her people and yet it is not willing to avail those solutions to those most in need.

It is the story of how Uganda has invested billions of shillings supporting the development of modern biotechnology tools also known as genetic engineering, and is now seen as trying to donate the knowledge to her neighbours in the region before she benefits from it herself.

The latest paradox in the seemingly unending tale of Uganda’s poor implementation crisis is captured by the fact that neighbouring countries Tanzania and Rwanda appear to be taking major leaps in embracing the technology thanks to successful experiments that have been carried out in Uganda.

According to officials from the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) high-ranking officials from both Tanzania and Rwanda have visited Uganda in the recent past and learned how Uganda has advanced her research using biotechnology to control crop diseases as well combat climate change.

Philip Chemonges, the Coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) reveals to The Sunrise that officials from Rwanda were at UNCST last week to get lessons on how Uganda has developed her policies regarding Biotechnology.

The visit by Rwandans came a while after another visit by the then Tanzanian minister for Agriculture Adams Malema who came to Uganda along with his team to familiarise themselves with progress that Uganda had made on the use of GM technology in confronting disease and environmental stresses.

According to Chemonges, at the time of Malema’s visit, Tanzania had adopted stringent anti-GM regulations that had the impact of frustrating investors by imposing punitive measures technology such as seeds.

“After the meeting, Mr. Malema was convinced about the potential of GM in overcoming the some of Tanzania’s agricultural challenges. He said that if you’re not using it, we are going to use it,” Chemonges recalls further that when minister Malema returned to Tanzania, he moved the government to repeal the strict liability provisions in Tanzania’s laws.

Since last year, Tanzania has improved her biotechnology and biosafety regulations, by preparing the environmental and safety guidelines relating to the technology. Observers consider this a critical first step of providing the needed political will that has hampered progress on the adoption of the technology.

In Kenya, despite a few years of squabbling over the safety of GM food, the country recently embarked on the process of conducting multi-location trails of GM maize, and hence prepare for the final stage of licensing for release to farmers.

In Rwanda, the recent visit by Rwandese officials to Uganda has been described by observers as a sign of improving political will which could actually result into the country fast tracking its regulatory measures to take advantage of the technology.

Many in the development arena also acknowledge that Rwandans act smartly by adopting and customising policies formulated by Uganda and thereby avoid wasting valuable time developing those policies.

Uganda has built a reputation and track record as the leading country in Africa in developing solutions to some of the most challenging crop diseases that terrorize most African farmers using biotechnology. With 13 trials currently being carried out at several research stations in Uganda, the country boasts the highest number of trials on GM in Africa.

According to Chemonges, Uganda has recorded runaway successes at least in confined fields, in the control of Banana Bacterial wilt, cassava brown streak and cassava mosaic disease as well as in improving maize performance against the stem borer and amid very low rainfall.

The promising innovations targeting Ugandan critical food security crops are yet to inspire Ugandan politicians to take action to put in place a law that can allow for adoption of the technology by investors. And the mood contrasts sharply with what transpired back when the lab was being established, which has led some to wonder why the government has been investing billions of shillings towards research activities.

In 2003 president Yoweri Museveni opened the Uganda Biotechnology Laboratory, the first of its kind in the region. And according to Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, the head of the laboratory located at Kawanda, president Museveni then expressed high optimism about Uganda’s ambition to use modern scientific means to improve scientific tools to power agriculture.

13 years since the laboratory was erected and with outstanding successes having been registered in the form of disease resistant and drought tolerant crop varieties, many experts are asking what happened to the President’s dream of using modern science and technology to transform Uganda’s agricultural sector.

The president’s ambition and enthusiasm has since faded as seen by his unwillingness to champion the Biotechnology and Biodiversity bill 2012, that has been on the shelves for many years.

Progress globally

Uganda’s half-hearted response to the potential of GM technology comes amid growing evidence about the contribution of biotechnology in improving the lives of millions of farmers and consumers globally through increase production and declining herbicide use.

The latest report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotechnology Applications (ISAAA) shows growing adoption of biotechnology especially in the developing world.

The report shows that of the 28 countries that grow biotech crops, majority are developing countries and include such countries as Brazil, the second biggest producer, Argentina, Bangladesh, The Sudan, South Africa, Burkina faso.

The report equally shows increased incomes to farmers amounting to US$150bn.

Many MPs in the past parliament opposed biotechnology on fears that GM food posed health risks such as Cancer and damage to the environment. But these fears have been discredited by high-ranking health bodies such as the World Health Organization and the US National Accademy of sciences.

This week over 100 Nobel laureates came together to criticise Greenpeace, an international group with a history of campaigning against GMOs and accused it demonising a technology that has numerous benefits to humanity including the danger of malnutrition.

The Nobel laureates say: “Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than, those derived from any other method of production” and asserts that “there has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption.”

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