Science & Technology Insights

As student of Biotechnology, I argue that whereas biotechnology is not a panacea, it is an indispensable technology. This edge cutting technology is globally poised as a solution to renowned challenges in diverse disciplines (health, agriculture, industry and environment) and hence should be embraced in Uganda.

It is important to note that tertiary institutions have trained a reliable human resource in the field of biotechnology and an example being Makerere University which trains and equips students with knowledge and skills in this discipline through postgraduate and undergraduate programs has trained about 400 graduates since 2004. This reflection could guarantee enough human resource and the country’s readiness to embrace the technology in terms of human resource. It is pertinent to avoid isolating biotechnology from biosafety.

Uganda already has laws, regulations, and policies (The Animal Disease Act (Cap 38), The Plant Protection Act (Cap 31), The Agricultural Seeds and Plant Act (Cap 28), National Environment Act (Cap 153), The Food and Drug Act (Cap 278) and others) which have a bearing on biosafety management especially as regards Genetically Modified Organisms’ (GMO) use, but they fail to mention this aspect. The urgent call to have a national explicit legal framework that adequately caters for biosafety issues in relation to safe application of modern biotechnology should not go unanswered.

The country is now at advanced stages of developing this law to guide biotechnology application. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 in parliament has caught public attention and the public is engrossed in a heated controversial debate on the Bill’s intent and ultimate purpose. Uganda is signatory to both the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992 (CBD) and its legally binding protocol the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, 2000 (CPB). The Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology applications. Whereas biotechnology as a science is an indispensable technological tool to address various agricultural, environmental, health and other challenges, its safe application should be priority for the Pearl of Africa. In my opinion, the biosafety word in the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 should be the definitive element of the soon to be National Biotechnology and Biosafety Act.

Whereas some sections of civil society have been advocating for a bill that is more precautionary, I would like to state that the bill in its current form is adequate precaution in itself. As everyone may be aware, you cannot release GM crops to farmers without this law being passed to guide scientists and relevant government agencies on how this will be handled. The entire bill is premised on putting in place mechanisms, institutional frameworks for risk assessment and management with the ultimate aim of ensuring that the products of genetic engineering are safe to human health and to the environment. The bill before Parliament provides for adequate level of protection in the field of research, development, safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms taking into account the risks on environment and human health. Thus, Uganda is saying, let us not only regulate the products of this technology but also the process of developing them.

Part 2 of the bill designates the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST) as the National Competent Authority. With reference to the most current creation of the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (MoSTI) in Cabinet, this ministry is better positioned for designation as the National Competent Authority by National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012. The Ministry should establish and empower a Directorate for regulation of biotechnology including designating an officer at the rank of a Director to serve as the Registrar for Biosafety and such a department should be resourced enough to enable the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) perform its work of conducting risk assessments (with support from expert staff in the Ministry). The directorate should therefore have sufficient staff and resources to enable Uganda comply with the article 4 of the Cartagena that requires comprehensive risk assessments to be conducted before approvals for release of GM crops into the environment for use by farmers. As far as the National Focal Point is concerned, the Bill designates the Ministry for Environment as the National Focal Point on matters of Biosafety. This is the Ministry that has always been responsible for Uganda’s multilateral agreements on environment of which the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is one, and thus I support the idea that it should continue to do so as provided for in the bill.

Globally, public participation is recognized as an important tool for promoting sustainable economic growth and development. Whereas the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety requires all parties to promote and facilitate public awareness, education and participation and the bill provides for public participation under Article 7h (i) and Clause 23(3) and (4) which includes sending applications for general release to relevant Ministries and agencies for presentations, publishing on the Website of the Competent Authority and in the National Gazzette for the public to make input. I am however of the view that the applications for general release of GM crops should also be published in at least one (1) newspaper of national circulation. This will enhance and promote the right of the public to contribute to decision making on this important technology.

In a nutshell, Uganda’s readiness and need to embrace biotechnology should not compromise the formulation process of a proper and implementable legal framework to address the potential risks therein taking into account human health and the environment. I consider the question of whether to embrace biotechnology different from the question of whether to pass the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 and I therefore think that Parliament should move quickly and enact the National Biosafety and Biosafety Bill 2012 taking into considerations of the views it has gathered from the public since November 2012 when fresh public consultations by the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament were re-opened.

Jonan Twinamatsiko is a student of Bachelor of sxience in Biotechnology at Makerere University, Uganda. Follow him on twitter @twinejonan

kenyagmosfiAfrica is under attack. But who is the perpetrator and who are the victims?

According to Henk Hobbelink, a Dutch agronomist and founder of GRAIN—a non-profit that campaigns against crop biotechnology and modern farming techniques—the menace is Big Ag, with GMOs as their weapon of choice. Hobelink, according to the GRAIN website, promotes “small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems

Hobbelink has been touring Uganda and other African countries in an attempt to kill growing support among farmers for genetically modified bananas that are resistant to banana wilt, which is devastating the crop. His message: countries that are growing GMO crops, the United States in particular, do not dare feed them to humans but use them exclusively for animal consumption—which is a lie.

The U.S. grows a dozen types of genetically modified crops including sweet corn, soybeans, sugar beets and papaya, which are all for human consumption.

But Hobbelink’s misrepresentations have not stopped the local media, which is reporting extensively on his trip, to referring to him as an International agricultural expert. He revealed this “mystery claim” to small holder farmers in rural Masaka, where banana bacterial wilt has devastated most banana fields. Here was a self-declared expert without a tangible solution to a growing catastrophe telling desperate peasant farmers that the transgenic resistant variety that local scientists have developed to help them is no better than animal feed.

Hobblelink, who runs his NGO from Spain, did not acknowledge Spain’s embrace of GMOs. Spain was the first European country to grow genetically modified plants and remains the region’s largest grower, with approximately 20 percent of its maize production, with few consumer or environmental concerns. Spanish corn is used in food production and for animal feed, as in the U.S. and other countries.

Hobbelink and his group, after holding their GMO demonizing briefings, went on to announce an offer of $2.7 million dollars in grants for what he called ‘viable food systems, economic rights of small farmers and their communities and the mitigation of climate change through low input and ecological agriculture’. This offer, he said, is open only to organizations which are ready to demonize GMOs at the grassroots level.

Background on GRAIN

GRAIN, which stands for Genetic Resources Action International, was founded as a coalition of European development agencies in the 1980s with the primary mission of “resisting the corporate Green Revolution.” Today it claims to be “a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.” GRAIN works in Africa, Asia and Latin America with political, peasant and farm union groups opposing GMOs, conventional and “corporate” agriculture while promoting organic and “agroecology” alternatives.

Dating back to 2001, GRAIN has partnered with numerous anti-GMO groups, most notably the Philippines based MASIPAG, which opposes crop biotechnology and efforts to develop vitamin enhanced crops, such as Golden Rice. They have jointly declared their opposition to “so-called ‘Green Revolution'” efforts by the International Rice Research Institute to engage in a “chemical take-over of rice farming” by “replacing farmers’ varieties with seeds that require costly external inputs such as pesticides, synthetic fertilizers… and coercive credit schemes…” The GRAIN and MASIPAG-led coalition claimed, “rice that is genetically engineered to resist herbicides or carry Bt toxins will lead to increased pesticide levels not to mention ecological disruption….” They have called for governments to prohibit all forms of genetic engineering of rice and other foods, even ones that enhance nutrition or fight against crop diseases, and ban all patents on genetic materials.

GRAIN claims to be a ‘grassroots’ organization. Its annual budget is more than one million dollars, with major contributors including the Barcelona government, OXFAM, and numerous U.S.-based anti-technology foundations. In Africa GRAIN’s major partner is Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA). Participants in its anti-GMO campaign campaign globally include: BIOTHAI (Biodiversity Action Thailand, formerly Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity), CEDAC (Cambodian Center for the Study and Development of Agriculture/ Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien–which markets organic rice), HEKS (Swiss Interchurch Aid group working in Cambodia), KMP (Philippine radical political party), Pesticide Action Network-PAN Indonesia and Philippines, Philippine Greens (Political party), UBINIG (Unnayan Bikalper Nitinirdharoni Gobeshona, the Policy Research for Development Alternatives in Bangladesh). These efforts were promoted by the U.S.-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), an anti-GMO NGO.

GMOs “dangerous and unnecessary”

GRAIN, partnering with AFSA, has also been campaigning against the proposed Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, claiming the interests of “ordinary farmers” in Uganda are ignored.

“We believe agro-ecological practices such as organic farming, soil conservation and biodiverse gardening are solutions to food insecurity, rural poverty and environmental degradation, not introduction of GMOs,” said AFSA’s Bridget Mugabe. “It (the bill) should be withdrawn and redrafted. We really need a law that will not deprive our farmers of their right to grow food based on agroecology,” Ms Mugambe added.

In Uganda and most parts of Africa, the nature of the crop determines whether it is grown organically or otherwise. Uganda’s major staple crops like bananas and cassava are always grown organically. In some few instances, farmers apply insecticides like carbofuran to fight nematodes. Through genetic engineering, Ugandan scientists at the National Banana Program have developed crops which are resistant to both nematodes and banana weevils, but they remain on the shelf because of opposition by GRAIN and other groups. Farmers would not need to apply significant amounts of inorganic pesticides again if they were approved and grown. The anti GMO activists, who claim to be environmentalists, are blinded to the versatility of genetic engineering, which could actually help them in their goal of no or limited chemical use.

Some farmers who grow crops without pesticides or fertilizers–organic crops–do so because they cannot afford the inputs. Often their yields are disastrously low, destroyed by pests. Yet their goods are sold into a Ugandan market that does not discriminate between organic and conventional products, where yields are much higher.

Uganda ventured into organic cotton production years ago, but farmers were badly hit by the resultant low yields coupled with promises of a premium price, which never materialized. Most farmers abandoned organic cotton for other crops like sunflowers. Recently the Cotton Organization was on the spot because Uganda, once known for cotton production, has started importing cotton for its small textile industry. While the organic movement in developed countries profits, small countries like Uganda, whose markets do not discriminate between organic and non-organic, are rendered forever subsistence by adopting an organic-only model. It could be profitable for a European or American farmer to produce organically because they would get premium prices for their products. But using poor farmers in Africa to under produce and remain poor while the certificate issuing middlemen and their organic masters profiteer is immoral. Adopting genetically modified Bt cotton would dramatically reduce the cost in inputs and result in a sharp cut in pesticide use–and save Uganda from importing cotton.

Fighting hypothetical fears with scientific facts

Cornell University’s global Alliance for Science has been accused by some anti-GMO activists of training GM propagandists.

That’s not what is happening.

In Uganda, the Cornell fellows under their Uganda Alliance for Science umbrella went to the very region where Hobbelink and his group had spread fear. In what seemed like a “battle for the grassroots” farmers, they shared with the locals how genetic engineering has helped confer “protection” on their indigenous crop varieties and how biosafety regulations would help protect rural farmers while encouraging innovation. Some of the information provided by the Uganda Alliance for Science included economic facts on losses due to these main crop diseases.

Alliance for scienceMore than 10 million Ugandans consume cassava as their main source of carbohydrates. Cassava brown streak disease causes as much as $24.2 million in damage annually. Another crop under attack is banana consumed by over 13 million Ugadans as their main source of carbohydrates. Bananas contribute up to 22 percent of the country’s agricultural revenue. The estimated yield loss due to banana bacterial wilt is $299.6 million.

The two diseases, banana bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak disease, ravaging Uganda’s farms are a threat to national and region food security as Uganda has been a major supplier of food to neighboring countries, especially South Sudan, which have not had time to develop their agricultural systems due to protracted wars. Conventional methods have not had meaningful success in addressing these challenges. Through genetic engineering, local scientists in collaboration with regional and global counterparts have been able to generate varieties which offer absolute resistance to these diseases.

In this battle for the grassroots where locals are bombarded with divergent information, farmers will have to make their decision based on hypothetical claims of harm made by groups like Friends of the Earth or the very real benefits documented by science groups like the Alliance for Science. They will have to be convinced that genetic engineering will protect their indigenous varieties as the Alliance claims or whether GMOS will “wipe away our sweet tasty natural indigenous forefathers’ varieties” as GRAIN and other anti-GMO groups claim. That choice will determine food availability or lack of it for current and future African populations.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac

Ugandan scientists and students at Makerere University have built an electric car.

The two-seater Kiira EV ('Kiira' means roaring in Lusoga, a local dialect), which is powered by a lithium-ion battery, was test-driven early this month (1 November) at the university. It can reach a maximum speed of 100 kilometres (km) an hour but needs recharging after an 80km run.

Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, principal investigator for the project and deputy vice-chancellor at the university, told SciDev.Net that the conceptualisation and design took place between April and August 2009.

"I assembled 25 engineers, electricians and designers. We used a large percentage of local materials to develop the Kiira EV." He said that they imported only the steering wheel and minor accessories.

The inspiration for the project came from Makerere's participation in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Vehicle Design Summit in Italy, in 2008. The inter-university event — in which Makerere was the only African team — led to the development of Vision 200, a prototype hybrid fuel-electric car.

Following the summit, the team decided to return home and build its own electric car.

In December 2009, President Yoweri Museveni expressed confidence in the product and instructed the Ministry of Finance to provide funding for the project of 25 billion Ugandan shillings (around US$10 million) for five years (2009–14).

Tickodri-Togboa added that a prominent Uganda businessman and member of the Private Sector Foundation, Habib Kagimu, has pledged to promote the group's work.

With such entrepreneurs, he said, the group expects the Kiira EV to evolve into low-cost cars for Ugandans in the near future. The next step is to build an electric 28-seater bus, said Tickodri-Togboa.

Kiira EV project manager Paul Musasizi said the car was tested for road-drive performance including its ability to climb steep gradients and pick up speed.

"It picks speed very quickly, the motor is strong and its reversing [ability] is perfect. It also climbed a 55 degrees incline," he said, after test-driving the car for 4km at a speed of 65km per hour. But he added: "More adjustments still need to be done when it is gaining speed to avoid jerking".

But David Mulabi, a community development programme coordinator at the Uganda Czech Development Trust, said that Makerere should redirect its energies.

"Farmers are struggling with drought because irrigation is too expensive … We need [irrigation] technology … not luxury [cars]," he said.

A feet beer maker extracting banana juice for making his favorite brew. Biotechnology could take those feet off the juice and more market created
A feet beer maker extracting banana juice for making his favorite brew. Biotechnology could take those feet off the juice and more market created

Mwenge bigere, also known as tonto, is a traditional Ugandan fermented beverage that translates as feet beer. Feet beer gets its name from how it is processed: stomping the juice out of overripe bananas sitting in a pit for several days. Uganda is one of the leading banana producers in the world.

Of several banana varieties, there are those specifically for making beer. It’s made out of the juice squeezed from the banana that has ripened in a pit for several days. The juice extractors, who are mostly men, step on the bananas with bare feet, squeezing out the juice. The juice is then mixed with sorghum cultured yeast to finish the work—delivering an alcoholic drink enjoyed by a number of communities in central and western Uganda.

The process needs to be fast before other chemicals in the fruit set in to “lock” the juice from coming out. The “banana dancers” occasionally shout the process is “dying” to spur them to work more 10-Ugandaquickly. The more the juice, the more alcohol they would expect. The “dying” or gelling of the pulp before maximum amount of juice is squeezed out is due to the high pectin concentration in banana. The other disadvantages of the traditional method are that it is labor intensive, has high chance of introducing microbial contaminants thus reducing the shelf life of juice and there is loss of the banana flavor.

Why biotechnology

This enzyme based process for extracting juice from the banana apart from tripling the amount of juice the traditional method of dancing in ripe banana would give, has also helped remove the not so pleasant reality of taking a drink made by a sometimes dirty feet.

The innovator, Samuel Kamya, who is supported by the Microbiology and Biotechnology Centre in the product development department at the Uganda Industrial Research Institute, says this innovation is so simple that one can produce the products from a school dormitory. He uses enzymes (Fruit-zyme) derived from certain bacteria and fungi. The enzymatic treatment also has the advantage of increasing the overall sweetness of the juice. Because it breaks down pectin and other celluloses, it increases juice yield and reduces gelling.

Kamya says gelling due to pectin is a major hindrance in local extraction of juice. The enzyme extracts-based method guarantees a 75 – 80 percent yield of hygienic juice with prolonged shelf life. The unhygienic process and the little juice the traditional process could make inspired and motivated a young Kamya, fresh from school, to conceive of this novel approach. At a National Biosciences Conference where he presented his products to farmers and policy makers, farmers were surprised and amazed by how these ‘micro feet’ could help them make their beloved brew without relying on feet-squeezed juice. The are would also not lose more than 30 percent of juice that would often go to waste using the traditional method.

Lactic acid is another product that could come from cassava but would require genetic engineering. Unlike banana juice extract that is maximized without having to modify microorganisms, in the production of lactic acid from cassava only 50 percent of the lactic acid is extracted. Deborah Wendiro, who heads the biotechnology department at the Uganda Institute of Industrial Research, says genetic engineering would definitely increase these percentage to more profitable levels.

Cassava is one of Uganda’s major staples just after bananas and it contributes to the daily carbohydrate intake of most households in Eastern and Northern Uganda. Cassava is also used for making local gin, which employs many women. Most of the nutrients in cassava are thrown away as waste during the production process. The opportunity that biotechnology provides to cassava growers especially women who are the ones involved in distilling is that they could make more acceptable products than the crude alcohol that have wasted lives of many drinkers. Vinegar, lactic acid, and ethanol are some of the products that will offer rural women the opportunity to make these newer products.

Helping women

Brewing of most traditional drinks in Uganda are a preserve of women. In Uganda as in most parts of Africa, women do not have access to agricultural land. They grow “food crops” which are supposed to be used for daily consumption as men usually raise crops that are mostly market bound. This makes women resort to brewing local alcohol. Most of the substrates are wasted because of the low conversion rates and the limited products that they get. The option of using modified organisms which are efficient in producing lactic acid is key to answering to the plight of these rural women as summarized by one of the local beneficiaries who remarked, “I used to think all bacteria and all fungi are bad and that every acid is ‘acidic’.”

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

Group-members-dance-in-joy-because-of-the-liberator-cassava-variety-1024x683Jaudi women’s group in Kisamwene Village, Butiama district in Mara region of Tanzania received a “Mkombozi” cassava variety from the Tanzanian national agricultural research center, Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute. Mkombozi is a kiswhaili word for liberator. According to Alex M. Bethney, the area Extension worker who offers technical backstopping to this cassava group, the Ukombozi variety is resistant to cassava mosaic disease which is one of the two virus diseases devastating cassava in the region.

This resistant variety was multiplied through tissue culture so it is free from any kind of disease at planting. Tissue culturing delivers clean planting materials but does not add any resistance to what the plant already has. This group received plants that are resistant only to cassava mosaic disease and not the devastating cassava brown streak disease.

Women farmers tissue cultured cassava celebration may be cut short by cassava brown streak disease

Cassava brown streak disease is a viral disease that has devastated cassava fields in the great lakes region including Tanzania. There is no cassava variety that has total resistance to this disease aside a few varieties that scientists consider tolerant but whose resistance breaks down after a few cropping cycles. Cassava brown streak virus is transmitted by white flies, which are in abundance in  farmers’ fields. Within a few months insect visits could take away the smiles from these women farmers.

A-woman-group-leader-smiles-along-with-their-extension-worker-inside-the-tissue-culture-derived-cassava-field-1024x683Juliana Mwangwa, the groups’ leader, was extremely excited about the tissue culture cassava she received. She noted that her group is able to supply members with clean cassava cuttings for planting, helping the many farmers who have been affected by the cassava viruses. That may change, however. Tanzania authorities have relaxed the strict liability clause, which means that Juliana and her fellow women may be able to eventually access a resistant variety.

Tanzania moving in the right direction

The strict liability in Tanzania’s Biosafey regulation 6 states: “All approvals for introduction of GMO or their products shall be subject to a condition that the applicant is strictly liable for any damage caused to any person or entity”. It was amended to include: “…….strict liability “as in the old regulation” shall not apply to researchers and research activities.” The presence of the clause meant Tanzania had no research on genetic engineering because scientists were scared of the stringent penalties based on perceived harm. In contrast, neighboring Kenya and Uganda have been conducting confined field trials on transgenic crops for close to a decade.

Modifying the strict liability clause is a loss for anti-GMO activists and a gain for the Tanzanian farmers and scientists who are directly involved in cassava production and research respectively. Tanzania is moving faster in using genetic engineering in addressing cassava brown streak disease which will enforce the short term goal of continuously supplying clean planting materials through tissue culture. Farmers also got to realize that the tissue cultured cassava that some anti groups prefer to call “Test tube cassava” is not any different from the cassava that they have been growing. They have also realized that subsequently they could multiply this cassava through cuttings the way it is traditionally done. This is the same way farmers will eventually have access to transgenic cassava which are genetically modified to resist the brown streak virus which is a real threat to food security in the cassava growing areas.

Former Tanzanian minister on biotech challenges

Adan Malima, former Tanzania’s deputy Finance Minister who is also the Patron for the Open Forum on Agriculture Biotechnology in Tanzania, noted that decisions on biotech research are not being made by people who know. He underscored the urgent need for grassroots mobilization that would empower farmers to influence decision making process to help shift the current situation in which farming decisions are being made by non farmers who are influenced by self appointed “on behalf of the farmers” activists.

Malima was opening a leadership meeting on grassroots mobilization training organized by the Cornell Alliance for Science for the Africa’s science allies held in the Tanzania’s Mara Region town of Mwanza. According to the Alliance for Science training’s Coordinator, Polly E. Holmberg, it was meant to provide avenue for science supporters to help amplify the voices that have not been heard–farmers voices, like Juliana’s, whose current clean field could easily be wiped out because of a crop disease that can be addressed through genetic engineering.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in developing countries. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

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