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Understanding the Science of GMOs and hybrid crops

By Christopher Bendana

Added 15th May 2020 04:14 PM

The protocol, signed by Uganda in 2001, calls countries to put in legislation in place to handle, transport, and use of living modified organisms, also known as a genetically modified organism.

Understanding the Science of GMOs and hybrid crops

The protocol, signed by Uganda in 2001, calls countries to put in legislation in place to handle, transport, and use of living modified organisms, also known as a genetically modified organism.

AGRICULTURE        NARO 

For Dr. Barbara M. Zawedde, a biotechnologist communications scientist at National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), a common question usually directed at her during biotechnology sensitization meetings is to explain the difference between Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) and hybrids.

The question has recently gained traction as different organizations in the country debated the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012. The Bill has since been passed by Parliament as the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act, 2018.

The main component in the Bill is the regulation of GMOs as required by the Cartegena Protocol of Biosafety (a protocol of the Convention of Biological Diversity).

The protocol, signed by Uganda in 2001, calls countries to put in legislation in place to handle, transport, and use of living modified organisms, also known as a genetically modified organism.

As Coordination of Uganda Biosciences Information Centre, a NARO information hub, Zawedde is entrusted with educating the mass about modern biosciences technologies applied including GM technology.

And in the process of sensitization she has interacted with institutions like Parliament and Local Government Leaders.

"It is a question, I will get wherever I will go for sensitization," she told New Vision.

NARO has been calling for the passage of a favorable biosafety law. It argues that GM, a technology under the bill has helped them breed drought, and pest and disease-resistant crops which were not possible with other breeding processes like hybridization.

However, those opposing the Bill, led by the Uganda Food Rights Alliance, claims the technology will enslave the small scale farmer by compelling them to buy seed every planting season. They argue that GMO seeds can't be replanted even though GM technology is not a reproduction system.

Many Ugandans think that any improved crops especially those with bigger fruit or a different taste from what they are familiar are GMOs, for example, mango or banana.

 "If the bananas are very sweet, then they are GMOs, if the mangoes are bigger, then they are GMOs," she reechoed

Zawedde has now developed a hypothetical model she uses to explain the difference between hybrids and GMOs. She usually invites a short man and herself as parents, then selects the tallest person in the room as their offspring, then she explains traditional breeding, hybrid and GMO technologies. She argues that ordinary parenthood where the children randomly express characteristics from father and mother as traditional breeding.

If breeders intentionally promote expression of some unique characteristics (usually not seen in the parents) as hybrid technology. She goes on to explain that if the breeders use advanced laboratory technologies to select the genes responsible for the characteristic from a parent and it is expressed in the offspring then it is GMOs technology.

She reveals that this simplistic but relatable model has been successful in helping audiences to appreciate the example because it is related themselves, although research focuses on plants.

Why move from hybrid to GM
Dr. Godfrey Asea who has developed and released several commercial hybrids and is waiting to have GM varieties released explains that hybridization is a breeding process that involves crossing two or more plants of the same species that combine well to get better traits or characteristic than either plants.

He argues that though this helps breeders to improve and pick good traits it has disadvantages of coming with some unwanted traits. 

Asea explains that in the conventional breeding, when for example, one is interested in improving yield or disease resistance in the hybrids from the crosses involving the different plants assigned as parents, sometimes, you end up bringing unwanted traits not seen in either parent. 

The process for improving for a specific trait of interest takes several years of development and testing

On the other hand, he argues that with GMOs, one only picks traits of their interest by going deep in the DNA and transferring it to the plant where you need it.

"It helps us pick the gene of interest with precision," he boasts about GM technology. It also helps to circumvent the lengthy process of conventional breeding especially for some traits that are difficult to improve. This process is guided by regulatory approvals guided by proven procedures for benefit and safety of everyone.

Dr. Ivan Lukanda. A lecturer of journalism at Makerere University says peoples' perceptions of mixing GMOs and hybrids are based on the fact that the institutes researching GMOs started by producing hybrids.

The institutes he is talking about include the National Agricultural Research laboratories, (NARL) Kawanda which has been developing hybrids bananas with released varieties like Kiwagazi.

The same institute has bred a banana resistant to banana bacteria wilt and another enhanced with Vitamin A using GM technology. The one against BBW showed 100% resistance against the wilt while the one enhanced with Vitamin A increased it to considered levels that would reduce anemia in pregnant women.

The other institute that has developed hybrids and is working on GM research is the NaCRRI. The institute has developed over 16 hybrid maize varieties. It has also developed a stem borer resistant variety and another drought-tolerant variety using GM technology.

Lukanda whose Ph.D. thesis is Media Coverage & Public Perception in biotechnology with a focus on GMOs in Uganda adds that the perceptions are augmented by the fact that the same institutes researching GMOs started by producing hybrids.

"It is about the source, "he says. "They have an idea the same research institutes are researching GMOs."

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