Jude Aleu. Trial Manager of GM cassava at NaCRRI showing how so clean the tuber from a GM cassava
Agribusiness Industry

Cassava farmers ask President to approve GMO bill

Cassava farmers from Nakasongola District have appealed to President Yoweri Museveni to assent on the passed Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, 2018 such that Uganda  can start the growing of Genetically Modified Organisms that have been developed through Biotechnology Engineering.

Farmers have learnt that scientists at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) Namulonge have developed crop varieties especially maize and Cassava.

The varieties are resistant to various environmental constraints such as droughts alongside pests and diseases but farmers cannot access such varieties because there is no law to regulate Biotechnology application in the sector.

Farmers and district council leaders who were led by their district chairperson Sam Kigula made the remarks during a field tour to the Research Institute last week.

They were on a tour to find out about how biotechnology innovations can support the local farmers in the Agriculture Sector especially in the areas of improving crop yields  at low cost.

During the tour, farmers learnt that the application of the Innovation (Farming of GMO crops being developed through Biotechnology Engineering) can help them to overcome challenges such as the outbreak of cassava mosaic and Cassava Brown streak disease.

The disease has impacted greatly to cassava farmers since the outbreaks have direct linkages with poor yields and also has increased the cost of production to farmers in the district yet the District is among the leading producers of cassava in the country.

During the interaction, Dr Titus Alicai, head of Root crops program manager at the Institute, told farmers that scientists have developed Genetically Modified Organisms Cassava in series of NASSE 13 and NASSE 14 using Biotechnology Engineering innovations.

The varieties are resistant to such diseases and can be grown for long period of time as compared to the current varieties that are just Tolerant to the diseases.

“If our Scientists have developed such varieties why can’t farmers be allowed to grow such crops varieties   because cassava farmers in Nakasongola we have been greatly affected by the two diseases yet Cassava is both food and cash crop to the people of Nakasongola. We request those with the Authority to help us to ensure that the Law is in place to regulate the growing of GMO crops,” Sam Kigula the Nakasongola LCV chairman said during the field tour at the institute.

Dr. Alicai told farmers that the new varieties that have been developed using Biotechnology application are less costly for farmers and the yields are much better compared to the varieties being grown currently that require more attention in form of application of inputs such as fertilizers and herbicides.

“Farmers have been misguided by some Organization about GMO, crops some say they require much application of agricultural inputs, causes cancer among others Myths but the fact is that   the technology is more costly friendly to the farmers we have developed these varieties with the Intention of supporting farmers to make it more affordable compare to the existing varieties” he told the Farming Delegation.

He further noted that through Biotechnology Engineering they have developed GMO Maize that is resistant to drought and pests and diseases this makes it cheaper to the farmers because it saves the farmers from buying herbicide to be applied on the crops in case of the outbreak of Diseases and pest alongside spending more resources on Installing Irrigation systems because the variety can withstand drought conditions.

On whether GMO, crops cause Cancer and affects the Environment, Alicai said there’s no Empirical studies to prove it because the technology has been used in many Developed Countries and no Scientific Evidence has shown that their national who consume GMO products have or are dying of cancer.

“GMO corn is consumed in European countries such Portugal and Spain and Even Brazil how comes that such developed states have not halted the growing of such crops? Our local people should understand what because cancer instead of attributing to the deadly virus disease to GMO products “He assured them.

Nakasongola District Agriculture Officer Sarah Sseninde told East African Business Week that the varieties such as NASE13 AND NASE 14 have been tested by the scientists under the confinement Field Trials and the results indicates that they are resistant to such diseases

She advised farmers to embrace the technology when the issues related to the regulations have been solved by the various governments.

Currently, farmers are farming NASE13 and NASE 14 hybrid cassava varieties however they are not resistant to droughts as it’s with the case of NASE13 and NASE 14 of the GMO variety.

Uganda stated working on the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill.in 2012 and in 2017Parliament passed the Bill and it was sent to the Head of State for it to be assented too by the head of state, however the president rejected the bill in its forms and he sent it back to parliament for some amendments.

The process

The Bill has been re-tabled in Parliament with amendments which resulted into the changes of the name from National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill to Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, 2018. After consultation with stakeholders, the Bill was passed for the second time in November 2018 and it awaits the President to append his signature.

Isaac Ongu, the Executive Director of Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE), an Organization advocating for Uganda as country to embrace Biotechnology in the Agriculture Sector, told the East African Business Week that all the researches carried out in Biotechnology in Uganda have been conducted under the Ugandan National Council of Science and Technology Act and for such development to be commercialized it requires another Law in Place.

“All the crops being developed using Biotechnology Engineering in Uganda are still research under Confinement Field Trials but for this crop to be out of research stations to farmers it needs additional Law which parliament passed the Bill when it’s assented to by the President and gazette by Government it will become Law.

“Unfortunately the president has not assented to the Bill and the 30 days mandatory time period given by the Constitution to assent or notify the speaker has already elapsed its now upon the speaker to call for the copy of the Bill to be laid on the floor of Parliament and it will become law then after gazetting the Minister can go ahead to establish various structures that will help Scientists to roll out these GMO crop varieties to farmers who need them,” he explained.

When asked the way forward since many farmers are waiting for the crops to be commercialized in Uganda like in other Countries in Africa where the growing of GMO crops is taking place, Ongu said the farmers need to talk to their legislators to ensure that the Bill is brought back to Parliament for the institutions to pronounce it as Law.

Some of the African Countries that have commercialized GMO crops include Sudan where they are growing GMO Cotton, South Africa here they are growing maize, cotton and soybeans.

Economic Impact of Growing GMO cassava varieties

According to Dr Alicai, the growing of GMO cassava will save Uganda about USD$60 to 70Million that the country has been losing due to the outbreak of cassava diseases. The development will also support the development of industries that use cassava as a raw material especially in the brewing Industry and pharmaceuticals.