By Francis Kagolo
SUNDAY VISION - Biotechnology and genetic engineering have the potential to do for agriculture what mobile technology has done for the communications sector in Africa, a renowned Harvard University scholar, Prof. Calestous Juma, has said.
Prof. Juma, who was in the country for a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni, advocated for the adoption of Genetically Modified Orginisms (GMOs) saying they would boost food and income security.
He however, cautioned that it would be detrimental to adopt GMOs without clear flexible and supportive biotechnology regulations, asking Parliament to pass the Biotechnology Bill.
He was speaking at a public lecture organised by the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) at the Kampala Golf Course Hotel.
Prof. Juma has authored several books on Africa’s development, including The New Harvest, which is arguably today’s most authoritative scholarly work on agriculture in Africa.
At the public lecture he emphasised the role of technology in transforming livelihoods, insisting that if Africa didn’t embrace GMOs in agriculture, the problems like climate change, pests and diseases that have dogged the sector over the years would devour production to shocking levels.
He cited the Banana bacterial wilt which has devastated banana growers in Uganda, saying the problem would be deterred is farmers planted GMO banana varieties that are resistant to the wilt.
He decried the phenomenon of resisting new technologies, saying it won’t help Africa to develop. On the safety of GMOs, he likened the current debate to the rumours that were circulated during the early days of mobile technology that the phones would cause brain cancer.
He said instead of focusing on rumours that discredit GMOs, it was prudent for governments to empower institutions to effectively check the safety standards of each product introduced on the market.
He said biotechnology had caused a 24% increase in cotton yield per acre and a 50% growth in cotton profit among US smallholder farmers between 2006 and 2008. It raised consumption expenditure by 18% during the period.
He cited another report which said GMO crops that are pest-resistant had suppressed pests even beyond gardens where they were planted to assist farmers who don’t grow GMOs.
“Biotechnology and in particular GMOs are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding,” he asserted.
Prof. Zerubabel Nyiira, state minister for agriculture, said while science and technology were the tickets to economic development, genetic engineering would spur food and nutritional security.
Dr. Andrew Kiggundu of the National Agricultural Organisation (NARO), said they had began using biotechnology to produce drought, pests and disease resistant crop varieties.
He explained that genetic engineering would make agriculture more attractive and reduce the number of youth running away from rural areas.
Vision Group boss Robert Kabushenga who was the master of ceremonies expressed discontent over the delay to pass the Biotechnology Bill yet parliament gets time to debate minor issues like miniskirts.