The country should generate enough cassava to produce biodegradable plastics and get rid of kaveera
By Kyetume Kasanga
Sometime last year, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) executive director, Dr Tom Okurut vented his frustration with the sluggish and half-hearted fight against single-use plastic bags commonly known as kaveera in Uganda.
He was speaking at the launch of an environmental campaign to create public awareness about the dangers posed by the use of kaveera to health and the environment courtesy of its imperishability. The public has been adjusting by adopting, albeit at a snail’s pace, the usage of alternative paper bags but also relapsing because the paper bags are susceptible to moisture penetration and cannot withstand liquids.
Charlotte Kemigyisha, the principal public relations officer at National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) on 10th July 10, 2019 hosted a team of 25 Government communication officers/spokespersons at National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), Namulonge, about 30km northeast of Kampala in Kyaddondo North, Wakiso District.
The guests got an overview of biotechnology research and its implications on trade, health and environment. The feat was ably performed by Dr Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde, a plant breeder, geneticist, biotechnologist and Coordinator of Uganda Biosciences Information Centre at NARO.
The team was informed that cassava has assumed a prominent position as an industrial crop. Intensive research at Uganda’s NARO has discovered its latest use: the fight against kaveera. Unknown to many, through NaCRRI, NARO has developed biodegradable plastics from cassava chips. These can be used as a liner to protect paper bags from being soaked with liquid or affected by moisture. The product decomposes into organic manure just within weeks, compared to plastic bags that take between 10 and 1,000 years to decompose.
Cassava (Manihot esculenta) can be grown anywhere in Uganda. It has high yield ability and flexibility in the farming and food systems, does well in marginal and stressed environments, gives satisfactory yields where most other crops fail, demands low labour requirements and can remain in the bush for over two years without spoilage. As a result of research, it is resistant to pests and diseases, and has low mortality rates.
NaCRRI is one of the 16 national and zonal agricultural research institutes under the policy guidance and co-ordination of NARO. All these have groundbreaking research to their names, with astounding results. Their collective goal is to enhance contribution of research to sustainable agricultural productivity, sustained competitiveness, economic growth, food security and household poverty eradication.
NaCRRI conducts research and knowledge generation for cassava, legumes, cereals, horticulture, oil palm and sweet potatoes. Cassava, the raw material for biodegradable plastics, is a commercial crop in Brazil, Thailand, China, Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique. Native to South America, it was introduced in Uganda through Tanzania by Arab traders between 1862 and 1875. Its conventional use is to play an important role in the national diet and to contribute a substantial proportion of the caloric requirements of the population.
Dr Yona Baguma, the NARO deputy director general for research coordination commends Government for giving the organisation 100 percent research funding for the first time last year. It has intensified research to tame major cassava virus diseases in the country. As a result, the incidence of cassava brown streak disease has reduced to 20.4 percent, down from 27.3 in 2011. Cassava mosaic occurrence has been controlled below 20 percent, while average yields have increased to 15.6 tonnes per hectare, up from 9.7 in 2010.
Therefore, the country should generate enough cassava to produce biodegradable plastics and get rid of kaveera. However, increase in volumes of cassava production can only be enhanced through introduction of genetically modified (GMO) breeds. Uganda is now at crossroads over an attempt to introduce GMOs on the market using an enabling law.
Last year Parliament passed the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, 2018 that was formerly known as the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012. The Bill provides a regulatory framework that guides safe development and application of biotechnology in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni is yet to assent to it but its proponents believe it will boost the farmers. However, those against it warn that GMOs will wipe out Uganda’s largely organic farming industry.
According to the NaCCRI Director of Research, Dr Godfrey Asea, biotechnology is a controversial subject due to disinformation and miscommunication. The delay to field the regulatory law has forced Ugandan scientists to halt the release of GMO breeds, shooting the fight against kaveera in the foot.
NARO is applying biotechnology tools in the development of potato varieties tolerant to blight disease, maize varieties tolerant to drought, stock borer and the fall army worm, and banana varieties enhanced with vitamin A content. It is also producing tick-specific vaccines and one cocktail vaccine that potentially protect cattle in the region from the three most prevalent ticks. These are brown ear ticks, blue ticks and the African bont tick. For cassava versus kaveera, the fight is on.
The writer is a Principal Information Officer