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KAMPALA - In agricultural research, biotechnology has helped to developed
modified or improve agricultural crops also called transgenic plant
varieties by taking DNA sequences from other organisms and inserting them in
economically desired plants. This process which has existed for hundreds of
years has gained prominence in 3 crops of corn (maize), cotton and soybeans,
August 2004 by Andrew Muganga Kizito.
Scientists have discovered a way of inserting Bacillus thuringensis (Bt),
a natural soil microorganism and the most important natural pesticide, into
these 3 crops. For example, a gene that kills the corn borer has been
inserted in some maize varieties to produce what is called Bt Corn, which
does not require application of chemical pesticides. There is also roundup
ready maize, which does not require weeding. This means that farmers who
plant this corn do not need to apply chemical pesticides.
If you are a cotton farmer, you probably know how much pests and weeds you
have to deal with before you harvest a good crop. After spraying cotton, for
example and it rained, you have to re-spray, let alone the fact that some
pests have developed resistance to pesticides.
The laborers weed poorly too, by covering the grass in order to finish their
pieces first and demand for their money. Scientists have developed what they
call RoundUp Ready Cotton. This allows you to spray to control all weeds but
cotton. By planting this genetically modified cotton, farmers can save money
and time in terms of buying pesticides and labor, among others.
On the second front, Africa, including Uganda, has the highest number of
staving stomachs due to poor yields attributed to many factors including
weather, pests and weeds. What would be wrong one day if our scientists in
Serere Agricultural Research Station, say, come up with a variety of millet
that can not be eaten by worms? In addition, they discover the gene that
makes Olumbugu more drought resistant and put it millet and sorghum, to
ensure that even in prolonged dry spells, Ugandans whose staple food is
millet have sufficient stocks in their granaries?
For scientists to be able to do this kind of research they need resources in
terms of money and time and most importantly regulation to enforce what is
called Intellectual Property Protection for Plant Research and Development.
The private sector usually provides the former and government the later.
For example, if scientists at Serere, say, came up with drought resistant
millet, they need to be protected and given a chance to sell the seed until
they recover the money they spent developing the seed. This should be done
carefully not to end up with total monopolies in these areas of R&D and
requires proper set up and control of patents, performance and policy.
The disadvantages of biotechnology in agricultural research have been mostly
worries from especially European consumers who are skeptical of GM products.
Some people are allergic to GM foods, just as there are millions allergic to
other foods such as nuts, fish, and milk. The solution to these in America
is a food inspection and labeling system that people trust. If you do not
want to eat GMs do not buy them. Go and pay a dime more for non-GM food.
The second fear has been that the genes might flow by wind or be carried by
animals to contaminate nearby plants. The companies that sell GM seed here
also provide extension services, which are adhered to by farmers. There is a
buffer zone, which is usually maintained by farmers. This might me a
limitation for poor farmers on fragmented land in Uganda.
Some people have argued that Bt crops may be poisonous to wildlife including
the monarch butterfly. This was because someone published results from a
small laboratory trial, which was not replicated under natural conditions,
that appeared to indicate that the pollen of genetically modified Bt corn
presented a threat to monarch caterpillars.
Otherwise if you drive on a highway for a couple of miles, you probably kill
more butterflies than Bt Corn for the equivalent hectares.
Scientists are worried that plant-eating insects and weeds will develop
resistance to Bt crops leading to the creation of super-bags or weeds that
can not be destroyed. But this is normal. Pests always overcoming whatever
mechanism we use to control them. Even malaria is now resistant to
chroloquine and quinines. And that is why technology has to keep step ahead.
In summary, GM crops will help control pests and weeds. The farmers will
spend less time putting their hands on the hoes and wrecking their backs
weeding if they adopted zero tillage by planting RoundUp ready crops, this
could increase the life expectancy of a the Ugandan farmer if not by a year,
at least by a day. The soil will become more fertile since crops are drilled
into last harvest stubble. There will be me more conservation of soil
moisture and reduction in soil erosion. More Ugandans would get food and
therefore fight malnutrition. We should tailor our own biotechnology
research to our setting. We should encourage the private sector to invest in
agricultural research in Africa by setting up appropriate environment such
as agricultural financial institutions and enabling legislature. We should
continue to trust in technology which will help ensure a good food supply
for the future.
Andrew Muganga Kizito is at the Dept. of Agricultural Economics Michigan
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