News Updates

Science & Technology News

Ugandan researchers will carry out a series of field trials on some of the major food crops that have been genetically modified (GM), following several recent approvals by the Uganda National Biosafety Committee, despite a lack of clear legislation on commercialising any such products within the country.

They will seek to develop both transgenic and conventional maize varieties tolerant to climate change-induced drought; GM cassava resistant to virulent cassava brown streak virus ravaging the starchy root crop across eastern and central Africa; GM bananas with engineered resistance to Xanthomonas bacterial infections; and cotton plants containing both Bt and 'roundup-ready' genes.

According to Yona Baguma, vice-chairman of the committee, the approvals — given in July and followed by planting that started last month (September) and will go on until November — are "historic". They are clear signals that Uganda's scientific community has built capacity in molecular biology and convinced the committee it can adhere to national and international guidelines on GM organisms, he said.

"It is also significant that the committee has matured with functional and competent systems to assess and evaluate applications, with rejections and approvals," said Baguma.       

Godfrey Asea, principal investigator for the maize trials and national project coordinator for Water Efficient Maize for Africa said: "Our confined field trial site is ready to plant the first transgenic maize in November 2010.

"This shall be a trial on efficacy for drought-tolerance by GM and conventionally-bred maize. When it succeeds, we expect to carry out more trials on starch content, taste, production outputs and to commercialise by 2017," Asea told SciDev.Net.

Uganda has previously approved and carried out a field trial on banana to test black sigatoka disease resistance (2007 - 2009)two trials to evaluate Bt and roundup ready cotton (2009 - 2010), one trial to test cassava mosaic virus resistance (2009 - 2010), and one ongoing trial to test banana bio-fortified for vitamin A and iron.

But the country still lacks a national biotechnology legal framework for releasing such crops on the market. The 2008 National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill has still not been approved by Parliament and, with elections expected in February next year, the date of its passage is still unsure.

But Godber Tumushabe, chief executive officer of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment — a policy think-tank — said Uganda is unnecessarily rushing to develop GM crops before it builds the critical scientific and infrastructural capacity to ensure the products are safe.

Only three African countries are currently growing GM crops commercially: Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa. Several others are conducting research and field trials, including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, mainly focusing on staple local crops such as cowpea.

Coffee farmers in Uganda are missing out on improved, disease-resistant varieties developed three years ago, because of a lack of government funding to roll them out, say scientists.

New coffee varieties are resistant to fungal coffee wilt disease (CWD) — which has destroyed around 200 million plants in the country, costing US$27 million annually, according to statistics from the Uganda Coffee Development Authority.

But the Ugandan government has failed to allocate the US$1 million required to kick-start rapid production of new plantlets from resistant lines, according to scientists at the state-run Coffee Research Institute (CORI).

The seven elite lines, known as kituza R1–7, developed by CORI, have traits conferring resistance to CWD.

Pascal Musoli, chief investigator on the CORI project, said that the outbreak started in western Uganda in 1993 and has since devastated coffee plantations of robusta, the country's main export variety.

"In 2002, the agriculture ministry and the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) surveyed the country to establish the extent of CWD spread and damage. More than 50 per cent of the plantations were found wiped out," Musoli said.

The scientists searched for resistant genes from cultivated plants in a large germplasm collection held at NARO and, by 2007, he said, had selected several traits found in varieties planted in the 1930s.

"Using conventional breeding we crossed these traits to susceptible robusta coffee varieties, boosting their anti-fungal immunity," he told SciDev.Net.

Africano Kangire, director of CORI, said that the institute wants to raise up to two million plantlets — which is the most they estimate they have the capacity for at the moment — through tissue culture.

"This is the fastest technique. From a single leaf we can generate more than 3,000 plantlets and it is possible to produce in excess of 150,000 plantlets from a single plantlet in a year."

He said his group now needs to raise enough resistant plantlets to get to a point at which the private sector would be interested in scaling up production.

James Musule, a coffee farmer in central Uganda, said farmers are eagerly waiting for the new variety as CWD continues to ravage their remaining bushes.

"When we heard of it, we expected policymakers to quickly support its mass multiplication and dissemination," said Musule who chairs the Namayumba Coffee Farmers' Association.

According to Okasai Opolot, the director for crop resources in the Ministry of Agriculture, the new varieties are a top priority for quick dissemination, but parliament has not yet approved budget proposals for mass multiplication.

"We've always budgeted for that item, but MPs haven't understood the urgency with which those varieties can positively change coffee farmers' prospects. We feel the pinch too," he said.

He said the ministry has requested the funds in the 2011/12 budget. "We hope this time round we shall get the money fast. We're optimistic that will have it towards end of 2011."

Some of Uganda's most lucrative tea plantations could be "wiped off the map" under the 2.3 degree Celsius temperature rise predicted for 2050, a study has said.

Even with the expected one degree Celsius rise by 2020, the 60,000 small farmers who grow Uganda's high-quality tea could face a 30 to 48 per cent decline in output, scientists at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have said.

Yields are expected to shrink and optimum tea-producing zones will shift uphill to cooler areas according to Peter Laderach, a CIAT climate scientist and an author of the Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda's Tea Growing Areas study, published last month (2 August).

Patrick Wetala, lead tea researcher at Uganda's Coffee Research Centre, told SciDev.Net that temperature rises will expose tea varieties to new conditions.

"In practice the rise in temperature is likely to lead to some parts of the plant, or all the plant, wilting or utterly drying as often happens during drought," Wetala said.

"The plucked leaf of the surviving plants will give poor quality tea as the leaves will be brittle," he added.

"Another, possibly more serious, impact of the rise in temperature is the coming into prominence of previously minor pests and diseases and the emergence of more virulent ones," he said.

The report, whose results were "a shock" according to Laderach, combined the results of 18 climate and two crop-prediction models, concluding that Uganda was set to suffer more than neighbouring Kenya, for a which a report CIAT published earlier this year (26 May) predicted "serious challenges" .

George Sekitoleko, executive secretary of the Ugandan Tea Association (UTA), said: " What scientists are predicting is right because whenever we have prolonged droughts, tea bushes dry extensively. Therefore, when temperatures rise by 2.3 degrees Celsius, impacts shall be extremely serious.

"Worse still, our tea is 100 per cent rain-fed. And the tea trade earns Uganda US$90m in foreign exchange."

"Concerted efforts towards adaptation now will be crucial to help minimise the risk," said Laderach.

Uganda grows about 20,000 hectares (ha) of tea, compared with about 132,000 ha for Kenya, and supports the livelihoods of up to half a million people, according to the UTA.

Some of Uganda's most lucrative tea plantations could be "wiped off the map" under the 2.3 degree Celsius temperature rise predicted for 2050, a study has said.

Even with the expected one degree Celsius rise by 2020, the 60,000 small farmers who grow Uganda's high-quality tea could face a 30 to 48 per cent decline in output, scientists at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have said.

Yields are expected to shrink and optimum tea-producing zones will shift uphill to cooler areas according to Peter Laderach, a CIAT climate scientist and an author of the Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda's Tea Growing Areas study, published last month (2 August).

Patrick Wetala, lead tea researcher at Uganda's Coffee Research Centre, told SciDev.Net that temperature rises will expose tea varieties to new conditions.

"In practice the rise in temperature is likely to lead to some parts of the plant, or all the plant, wilting or utterly drying as often happens during drought," Wetala said.

"The plucked leaf of the surviving plants will give poor quality tea as the leaves will be brittle," he added.

"Another, possibly more serious, impact of the rise in temperature is the coming into prominence of previously minor pests and diseases and the emergence of more virulent ones," he said.

The report, whose results were "a shock" according to Laderach, combined the results of 18 climate and two crop-prediction models, concluding that Uganda was set to suffer more than neighbouring Kenya, for a which a report CIAT published earlier this year (26 May) predicted "serious challenges" .

George Sekitoleko, executive secretary of the Ugandan Tea Association (UTA), said: " What scientists are predicting is right because whenever we have prolonged droughts, tea bushes dry extensively. Therefore, when temperatures rise by 2.3 degrees Celsius, impacts shall be extremely serious.

"Worse still, our tea is 100 per cent rain-fed. And the tea trade earns Uganda US$90m in foreign exchange."
 

"Concerted efforts towards adaptation now will be crucial to help minimise the risk," said Laderach.

Uganda grows about 20,000 hectares (ha) of tea, compared with about 132,000 ha for Kenya, and supports the livelihoods of up to half a million people, according to the UTA.

Page 4 of 4

Address

Address :

Plot 27 Nakasero Road, 1st Floor, Uganda National Farmers’ Federation Building, Nakasero, Kampala

Phone :

+256392-833-315

Email:

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Flickr Gallery

Newsletter

SCIFODE produces a Quarterly e-Newsletter of Science & Technology. Subscribe to Receive Updates on Science & Technology
Subscribe now