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October 25th, 2018 / Alliance for Science

B4FA Fellow Lominda Afedraru writes:

Ugandan scientists are accelerating their outreach to lawmakers to make them aware of improved crops like disease-resistant cassava, which farmers cannot grow until the nation adopts a biosafety law.

Cassava, a staple food crop for residents of Eastern and Northern Uganda, has been plagued by cassava brown streak virus (CBSV), a devastating plant disease that destroys the starchy tuber while it’s still in the ground. Cassava crop failures have led to famine and economic hardship in the afflicted areas.

In response, scientists at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCCRI) began using the tools of modern biotechnology to breed a virus-resistant, nutritionally-enhanced cassava. The project, known as Africa-VIRCA, began in 2012 and now has products ready for commercialization.

But the nation’s biosafety bill, which has been stalled since it was passed by Parliament a year ago, must be in place before the improved cassava can be released to farmers.

Scientists have used conventional breeding methods to develop more than 20 varieties of cassava that are now being grown by farmers. But since those varieties become susceptible to CBSV within four to five years, researchers turned to biotechnology to find a lasting solution.

However, due to the controversy around this technology, many Ugandan farmers lack knowledge about its benefits and are instead being confused by those who oppose it.

Scientists and organizations supporting biotechnology have in the past reached out to farmer groups to share information about research under way on genetically modified crops. However, their efforts haven’t been entirely successful because they have been unable to reach large numbers of farmers.

Now scientists think it’s better to sensitize local political leaders, who command trust in the communities they deal with on a daily basis, about the benefits of biotechnology. With the help of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE), a not-for-profit civil society organization that promotes science and technology innovations, the team has accelerated its outreach to political leaders. Read more