Uganda’s biotech research: More than just untapped potential

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role that scientific fields like biotechnology can play to better the human condition.

However, despite decades of application in different disciplines, the use of biotechnology in agriculture still carries an aura of socio-political contempt.

And this is not without its pitfalls, especially considering the huge amount of resources spent on biotech research and development.

Since 1993, Uganda has made significant investments in agricultural biotechnology R&D, from multimillion-dollar facilities to training and educating hundreds of people.

These efforts paint the picture of a nation truly committed to harnessing the potential of modern agricultural biotechnology to enhance sustainable food production, boost investment opportunities and support overall national development.

However, despite all this investment, the principal beneficiaries —including farmers and the nation’s bulging youthful population — have yet to realize any returns.

Local universities, such as Makerere, Kyambogo, Uganda Christian University and University of Kisubi, continue to churn out hundreds of graduates competent in biotechnology each year.

This raises pertinent questions: Why build this capacity if the country won’t utilize it? Why are such programs commissioned at the universities in the first place? Or more importantly, what does this mean for the parents who send their children to study these programs only to contribute to the numbers of unemployed youth?

Sustained government investment in cutting edge agricultural research to harness the latest technologies for the benefit of our farmers and overall national development is commendable.

It has helped put the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) on the map as a regional center of excellence in agricultural research.

Our own scientists’ research is helping to feed people as far away as Zambia and Mozambique. And this goes without mentioning our immediate neighbors.

Nevertheless, in the development of better, more resilient crops and animals, one set of technologies—agricultural biotechnology—remains a black sheep. A

n unconducive policy environment is the primary reason for Uganda’s failure to translate decades of agricultural biotechnology research from its national research centers to the intended end-users.

For the last two decades, Uganda has been in the process of formulating a national regulatory framework for biotechnology and biosafety.

However, thus far the existing regulatory environment does not permit commercialization of the products of agricultural biotech research.

The latest version of a regulation that would have permitted public release—the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act (GERA, 2018)—was rejected by the President in July 2019. This follows his rejection of an earlier version of the bill passed by Parliament in November 2018.

The absence of an enabling policy environment is among other things blocking investment opportunities in the public and private sector and contributing to noteworthy brain drain.

Further, Uganda’s farmers are denied the chance to choose and use biotech crops to improve their production and productivity.

Limited investment opportunities mean fewer jobs created for the mostly youthful students at the nation’s universities.

Read also African researchers use gene editing and other tools to breed heartier livestock

It is counterintuitive that a government invests so much in building expertise in an industry only to disregard such expertise with literally face-smacking contempt.

The glaring mistrust in our own scientists and their ability to make key decisions regarding agricultural biotechnology is akin to consulting a physician for legal advice.

The country’s largely youthful population finds it increasingly difficult to penetrate the agriculture sector due to a number of reasons. But the most important are the grim prospects of entering a sector that consistently performs poorly and well below set targets.

National agricultural output has grown at just 2 percent per annum over the last few years, well below the population growth rate and the 3-5 percent growth rates in other East African countries, according to the World Bank.

Uganda has the world’s second youngest population, comprising approximately 78 percent of the total. Demographic dividends must be harnessed to realize economic transitions by strategically investing in and creating opportunities for this human capital.

Revitalizing key sectors like agriculture is key to making them attractive to the youth and others. And what better way to do this than leveraging the locally built capacity and technologies developed by our very own scientists at institutions like NARO?

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The political will to make the hard and necessary decisions with regard to agricultural biotechnology is still largely tenuous in Uganda.

By blocking or limiting access to innovative agricultural technologies, the government is not only stifling agricultural progress but going against current efforts aimed at advancing towards the national agenda of transforming agriculture into a competitive and profitable sector.

As the country marches towards Vision 2040, it is timely to re-examine such largely untapped investments and begin to reap the benefits.

Supporting sustained innovation and adopting agricultural technologies with the potential to increase productivity is a critical and necessary step.

Among other concerns, those who oppose agricultural biotechnology are fearful that genetically modified (GM) and traditional crops cannot co-exist. But there is evidence that GM crops can and do co-exist with other farming practices.

Read also Agriculture Research needs sustainable funding – CSIR-SARI

With this in mind, if the country is serious about building a sustainable and progressive agricultural sector, we must chart a path towards a meaningful progression and happy middle ground.

Uganda must avoid getting trapped in limited approaches and grasp the opportunities available to us by exploiting modern technologies to create investment and employment opportunities, feed its own people and a growing world population and foster national development.

Uganda’s youth can only wait with bated breath and hope that government resolves to unlock the potential of key sectors like agriculture, thereby giving them the opportunity to carry on the work and expand the opportunities pioneered by Ugandan scientists in championing a robust, progressive and sustainable agricultural sector.

Joshua Raymond Muhumuza is an outreach officer at Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) and the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI)-Uganda.

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