There are efforts by scientists in agricultural sector in Uganda to breed key crops using conventional and biotechnology mechanism in a bid for farmers to grow crops which are resistant to pests and diseases and tolerant to drought to achieve improved yields.
Scientists from the National Agricultural Research Organistation (NARO) have been breeding hybrid varieties of crops like maize, cassava, rice, sweet potato, banana among others which farmers grow countrywide.
There has also been an initiative by the scientists who breed these crops using modern biotechnology approach mainly addressing issues of pests and diseases, drought tolerance and food nutrient.
They include banana resistant against bacterial wilt, nematodes and black sigatoka, cassava against Cassava Brown Streak Virus(CBSV) and Cassava Mosaic Virus (CMV), banana rich in Vitamin A and Iron, Irish potatoes against bacterial blight, maize resistance against maize stalk borer and drought tolerance and herbicide resistant cotton against ball worm.
The products of these crops have not been released to farmers because of lack of legal framework which is a requirement in regulating the same. The Biotechnology and Biosafety bill which was drafted by government in 2012 is still before parliament for debate.
But farmers in West Nile mainly growing cassava are embracing hybrid cassava varieties because of their commercial value and because they are tolerant to cassava Brown Streak virus.
They attribute this success to scientists at Abi Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute (ABIZARDI) who access the new varieties and make sure farmers get them.
The Director of the Institute Dr Sadik Kassim explains that since the people of West Nile rely on cassava as their staple food, it is the mandate of the institute to ensure farmers are given the right variety bred using new emerging technologies for them to realize good yield.
“We have tested cassava varieties like NASE14, 19 and Naro Cas1 and Naro Cas2, which are high yielding, aromatic, sweet in taste, can withstand pests and diseases and are rich in food matter. We have supplied these varieties to our farmers and they are growing it on large scale. As a practicing scientist I see no need why farmers should be denied crop varieties bred using modern biotechnology because this is a technology being used to develop varieties to address challenges of pests and diseases faced by our farmers,” he noted.
He contends that biotechnology has been used over the years like in baking bread in confectionary industries, brewing alcohol in breweries industries and manufacturing drugs. Therefore if this technology is applied in agriculture for the good of farmers there is no problem. He urged educated people not to confuse farmers by failing to differentiate between hybrids and genetically modified crops.
“Farmers usually want to maximize yield and they select what is good, I do not think they are opposed to modern biotechnology use in the agricultural sector. If anything the scientist using this technology are sons and daughters of the country and cannot end up developing poisonous products which their families will end up eating. I urge the elite people not to confuse farmers who may end up growing these crops. The people of West Nile must be proud of scientists who from the region who are well represented in application of Biotechnology, “he noted.
Mr Abdallah Drasiku is a farmer growing hybrid cassava varieties Nase19, Naro Cas1 and 2on their customary land in Loali village, Ogoko County in Arua district comprising 80 acres.
He began growing cassava in 2012 where he planted TME14 on 12 acres of land but it succumbed to CBSV and he failed to harvest anything.
The following year he planted Naro cas varieties on 20 acre land and he supplied over 800 bags of cassava stalk to Naads each bag costing Shs25, 000 – Shs27, 000 in the first season. Usually the stalk is harvest three times before the roots are uprooted.
He obtained about 200 bags of milled cassava which he sold at 50,000 per bag. In 2015 he planted Nase14 on 16 acres of land and harvested 1,400 bags of cassava stalk which he sold to operation wealth creation each bag costing Shs50, 000. He has so far uprooted and processed 150 bags of cassava from 6 acre land which he sold at Shs150, 000 each.
Mr Drasiku a university graduate has never thought of looking for employment but for him farming as a business is the way to go.
His target is to embrace every hybrid cassava variety developed by Naro scientists including those using modern biotechnology.
“What I know is that there is applied science in breeding hybrid cassava varieties which we have planted and eaten. The varieties which are GMO I am waiting for them because I believe they are free from CBSV which is a major challenge to us farmers,”
He explained that the hybrid varieties are free from cyanide, they mature in 8 – 12 months, high yielding because from one cassava root he can harvest a basin full cassava tuber and are tolerant to pests and diseases.
He is urging legislators to pass the bill as soon as possible because as a certified cassava seed producer, he is in urgent need of the GMO cassava varieties.
Another Farmer Mr Robert Cwinya Ai from Alivu village, Rhino Camp in Arua District is benefiting from cassava growing.
He planted Nase14 and Naro Cas1 on 6 acre land in 2015 and so far he has sold cassava stalk over 350 bags ac at Shs50, 000 to operation wealth creation and Karitus.
Mr Cwinya Ai is a qualified secondary school teacher but seeing how farmers growing cassava in his village were progressing, he decided to go into the same business.
He is always in touch with agronomists from Abizardi because they advise farmers on disease management. When farmers spot white fly which spreads the virus, they are advised to spray the entire field with locally made chemical made out of ash mixed with red pepper and Urine plus water which is left to ferment for one week before applying.
Mr Sisto Moja is an agronomist majoring in cassava at Abizardi and he says for farmer to realize good yield they must start with land preparation by Clearing all grass, brush and trees
and Plough the field before making ridges of holes
Farmers are advised to choose healthy, disease free planting material from vigorously growing plants 8-15 months old.
Select cuttings from the middle stem portions, 30 cm long with an average of 9-12 nodes. Cut setts using a handsaw or clean, sharp cutlass sterilized in a 1% Sodium hypochlorite solution and if possible dip in a fungicide/insecticide solution for 10-15 minutes and allow the solution to drain off before planting.
The stalk must be planted 50cm by 90cm and use a pre- emergent herbicide to control weeds for the first three months of growth.
Hand-weeding using hoes are normally recommended after 3 months, if necessary, since the enlarged crop canopy should limit weed growth after 3 months.
The major pests and diseases of cassava are thrips and mites which can be controlled using a recommended miticide and insect growth regulators. These pests are prevalent during dry periods and decreases as rainfall increases.
Cassava Shoot fly is another and a systemic insecticides should be used only during heavy infestations.
Others are Chinch bugs wher Crotalaria can be used as a trap crop for this bug as well as crop rotation practices which break the life cycle of the bug.
Cassava Bacterial Blight, Rust and Super Elongation Disease and farmers are advised to use clean planting materials to avoid this
These pests and diseases are the biggest constraints to cassava production in Uganda. Statistics indicate that they can cause losses of up to $24.2m (Shs81.7b) annually.
When harvested and fresh from the ground, the new cassava varieties can yield 14 to 55 tonnes per hectare and root dry matter content of 31-36 per cent.
The two varieties have high levels of alcohol content, making them very suitable for use in commercial ethanol production.
In Uganda, ethanol is being used to make medicinal alcohol, alcoholic drinks, fuel and solvent. Ethanol produced from cassava is a better alternative to gasoline, promises cleaner combustion, promotes a healthier environment and is economically viable.
The starch from cassava is also used in industrial sector to make, glue, animal feeds, paper, plywood and textiles.
The MP for Marcah, Denis Lee Oguzu who seems opposed to the bill notes that “the innovations by Naro Scientists including application of modern biotechnology are good because farmers are able to grow crop varieties for commercial purposes. My only concern is that let Naro Scientists take the lead in sensitizing farmers about this technology,”
He notes that amendments must be done for the bill to include issues of industrial biotechnology, environment and pharmaceuticals.