Ugandan scientists are accelerating their outreach to lawmakers to make them aware of improved crops like disease-resistant cassava, which farmers cannot grow until the nation adopts a biosafety law.
Cassava, a staple food crop for residents of Eastern and Northern Uganda, has been plagued by cassava brown streak virus (CBSV), a devastating plant disease that destroys the starchy tuber while it’s still in the ground. Cassava crop failures have led to famine and economic hardship in the afflicted areas.
In response, scientists at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCCRI) began using the tools of modern biotechnology to breed a virus-resistant, nutritionally-enhanced cassava. The project, known as Africa-VIRCA, began in 2012 and now has products ready for commercialization.
But the nation’s biosafety bill, which has been stalled since it was passed by Parliament a year ago, must be in place before the improved cassava can be released to farmers.
Scientists have used conventional breeding methods to develop more than 20 varieties of cassava that are now being grown by farmers. But since those varieties become susceptible to CBSV within four to five years, researchers turned to biotechnology to find a lasting solution.
However, due to the controversy around this technology, many Ugandan farmers lack knowledge about its benefits and are instead being confused by those who oppose it.
Scientists and organizations supporting biotechnology have in the past reached out to farmer groups to share information about research under way on genetically modified crops. However, their efforts haven’t been entirely successful because they have been unable to reach large numbers of farmers.
Now scientists think it’s better to sensitize local political leaders, who command trust in the communities they deal with on a daily basis, about the benefits of biotechnology. With the help of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE), a not-for-profit civil society organization that promotes science and technology innovations, the team has accelerated its outreach to political leaders.
Engaging politicians in outreach
SCIFODE Executive Director Arthur Makara, in addressing Ugandan politicians recently, noted that since they regularly interact with farmers and the general public, it is important for them to have accurate knowledge about biotechnology to ensure the information reaches a large audience.
Makaka thinks that communities tend to listen to their political leaders and believe what they say. Therefore, if they get the facts about biotechnology from their leaders, they will not be swayed by activists who seek to confuse them with misinformation at the grassroots level.
Politician’s view about GMOs
Wakiso District Councilor Garmal Abdu confessed that there is a lot of misinformation circulating about genetic engineering, which he initially believed. But with the facts he received from the scientists, he has come to understand that GMO crops are not bad.
“Previously, people claiming to have knowledge about this technology told us we cannot obtain (GM) seedlings and replant them,” he noted. “But now what I know is that once I obtain clean cassava cuttings from my farm, I can still plant them and they will grow. I am going to sensitize farmers about this. I will do this group by group so that they can get to understand this technology very well. From now onwards I will be the ambassador of this technology.”
Other political leaders said that they are going to explain to farmers how they are currently spreading diseases by sharing seeds and seedlings from crops that are already infected. But by using clean seed bred through biotechnology, they can obtain improved yields.
The breeding process and its success
Dr. Titus Alicai, principal research officer, plant virologist and program leader for the root crops research program at NaCRRI, recently addressed central Uganda political leaders at the Institute. He told them that scientists carry out research work to address emerging problems. In the past, when Uganda’s population was still low, they used conventional methods to breed better plant varieties. Today, however, scientists are using genetic modification to address the challenges facing farmers who are trying to feed a growing population.
“Most Ugandans are fond of referring to plants as ‘our indigenous crops,’ which is not true because most of these plants were brought to the country by ancient traders, including cassava, which came from Brazil some 160 years ago,” he explained. “As scientists, we work through collaboration with our colleagues in Europe, USA and countries in Africa in adopting best practices in breeding improved crop varieties.”
In recounting the background of cassava diseases, he noted that cassava mosaic virus (CMV) was spotted in Uganda in 1975. In response, scientists bred resistant varieties and it is no longer a major problem. But CBSV emerged in 2004 and by 2014 it had spread to all regions in Uganda. By 2012 , researchers from Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya had embarked on the project to produce east African cassava varieties resistant to both diseases.
CBSV is intense in central Uganda and affecting farmers growing varieties bred using conventional means. Statistical data from the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) indicate that once cassava brown streak virus invades a farmer’s field, it can cause 100 percent yield loss. With CMV, yield loss ranges from 30 to 100 percent.
But the varieties developed through genetic engineering, which uses the virus to essentially immunize the plants, much like a vaccination against human disease, has shown broad resistance to CBSV, offering hope that farmers will benefit immensely in terms of yield improvement if they adopt them.
Alicai explained that this ongoing research went through the required procedure, from product development in the laboratory to screen house testing and finally experimental field trials at Mubuku Irrigation Scheme in Western Uganda and the National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Eastern Uganda. The research documented 100 percent resistance to CBSV.
How GMO cassava can be used as industrial product
Makara told the political leaders that in addition to its food security role, cassava is considered an industrial crop. High quality cassava starch can be used to brew beer, make bread and cakes and develop medicine, including pharmaceutical syrup. But unless farmers can grow disease-resistant plants, manufacturers will be unable to obtain the required quantities of cassava.
Makara cautioned farmers to stop further spread of the disease by sharing cassava stems infested with the virus, which underscores the need for certified cassava multipliers to come on board and make cassava seed multiplication formal.
He asked the politicians to spread the good news about GMOs to their farmer constituents. Makara said they must stop believing information that is not from authentic source and instead start listening to the facts provided by scientists.