Young Ugandan farmers push for homegrown GMO crops

By Lominda Afedraru

December 3, 2018

Though Uganda’s Parliament passed a biosafety bill last week, it remains unclear whether it will benefit a coalition of young cassava farmers who are demanding access to genetically modified (GM) crops.

Some Ugandan scientists have said the bill’s strict liability clause will effectively stifle the research and commercial release of crops that government researchers developed to address the nation’s agricultural woes.

The current state of affairs has frustrated young farmers who are trying to make a living from agriculture, but facing serious disease pressures that limit cassava yields.

“The time agriculture was considered as an activity for the poor and the elderly is in the past,” said young cassava farmer George Semwanga. “Agriculture is now practiced as a business and a good number of youth are coming on board.”

The cassava growers belong to the Young Farmers’ Association, which is under the umbrella of the Uganda National Farmers Federation. They represent 10 different districts, mainly in central Uganda where cassava has been hard-hit by the brown streak and mosaic viruses.

They called upon activists to stop giving wrong information about the biotechnology law to Uganda’s President Museveni, saying their efforts to block GMO products are harming farmers who are trying to improve their standard of living.

The young farmers also urged legislators to allocate sufficient money to support scientific research initiatives in agriculture, since most Ugandans depend on that sector for their livelihoods.

They issued their statement at recent meeting organized by scientists at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), a public agricultural research entity that is working on improved crop varieties, some of them genetically modified.

Some of the young farmers are currently growing improved conventional hybrid varieties of cassava and also developing value-added products, such as flour and various confectionaries, in a bid to improve their livelihoods.  They’re hoping GM crops will help them beat the plant diseases that can devastate their farms.

“In the case of cassava, I can testify how it has changed my life,” said Semwanga, who cultivates 10 acres of land in the Nakasongola district. “But I am not satisfied in growing a hybrid variety which is likely to succumb to cassava brown streak virus. I need to venture into growing the GMO variety which is resistant to diseases. It is my prayer that politicians should desist in blocking research initiatives to reach the end users.”

Daniel Otim, another youth working with Africa Innovations Institute and majoring in rural sensitization of young farmers engaged in cassava production and value addition, echoed that sentiment, saying it is wrong for Ugandan legislators to politicize matters relating to agriculture, which is a source of food to the population.

“Why can’t Ugandan legislators give our scientists a benefit of doubt in advancing their work? If the scientists are saying they are breeding crops using biotechnology to resist pests and diseases, address drought challenges and add nutrients, then …. let the politicians listen to the technocrats other than politicking their scientific work,” he noted. “This is a technology which will address future challenges in agriculture and it is beneficial to us the youth who are trying to venture in agriculture as an employment initiative.”

The rest of the youths had similar views. A cross section of them who were engaged in processing confectionaries from cassava flour said they require high value cassava flour for baking. This is not possible if the flour is obtained from roots affected by cassava brown streak virus.

To them, the solution is to adopt GMO cassava because it resists the brown streak and mosaic viruses to which other cassava varieties are susceptible. They urged Kasule Sebunya, a Member of Parliament who was present in the meeting, to take their pleas to the legislative house.

Sebunya tried to reassure the youth, saying it is a mandate of the government to ensure its population is fed on clean food to keep healthy. “In biology we were taught that if you do not want to fall sick, then check on the quality of food you are eating,” he said. “Cassava and other staple crops have been hit by pests and diseases. Scientists are finding a solution by breeding GMO crops which are resistant. We shall ensure the law is passed so that farmers can access some of the products.”

But though the law has been passed, it remains unclear whether farmers will be able to access the products that Uganda’s government scientists have developed.

Cassava is the second most important food crop in Africa after maize. It is regarded as a crop for fighting poverty in African communities and is now considered also an industrial crop in Uganda, where it can be used for brewing beer, making confectionaries and feeding livestock. However, due to disease problems, crop productivity is low.

Uganda’s agriculture research institute has released 21 improved varieties that were bred conventionally. But these become susceptible to the brown streak disease within three to five years.

Omara Otim, a cassava breeder at the Institute, explained that scientists are now breeding GM cassava varieties which can resist the disease. This will enable farmers to grow varieties which are high-yielding.

“As scientists our work is to provide food to the population and there is no way we can develop food which is poisonous to our people,” he said. “I urge politicians not to mix politics with research and let politicians and activists stop confusing people on research issues which are scientific. Leave the science to the scientists.  We are trying to solve the disease challenge. That is the reason we are breeding GMO varieties.”

Dr. Ephraim Nuwamanya, who heads the Bio-analytical Laboratory at the Institute, said that cassava has over 15 food and industrial uses, which means there is high demand for the raw product. To meet the demand, farmers must grow varieties free from diseases for increased output.