By Michael J. Ssali

According to the latest Global Hunger Index report, Uganda’s hunger situation has been categorized as serious. The report paints a grim picture of undernutrition in the country as it shows stunting affects 29% of children aged five years and below. Data from the World Bank shows that at three percent, Uganda’s annual population growth rate is among the highest in the world with the country’s population of 44 million expected to reach 100 million by 2050.

Agriculture, which remains the major source of livelihoods for Ugandans, has a great potential to reverse the hunger trend in Uganda. It is baffling that agriculture is the mainstay of Uganda’s economy yet a sizable portion of country’s population cannot access nutritious food.

Smallholder farmers, who form the bulk of the Ugandan population, may relatively be feeling food secure. But this could be the calm before the storm as severe effects of climate change are fast taking a toll on crops across the country. 

Drought, pests and diseases have harshly caused massive destructions on crops spelling doom to farmers. Chemical applications have proven less effective in combating crop diseases. According to scientists, there is no chemical cure for the destructive banana bacterial disease, the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) and cassava mosaic. Other crops such as maize, sweet potato, and Irish potato are under attack by different pests that impede their production. 

Uganda’s cash crops have also borne the brunt of devastating effects of climate change. The country’s cotton production is greatly undermined by the African boll worm. The coffee wilt disease and the coffee twig borer among others are undermining coffee production. These are Uganda’s main cash crops and their massive production should be the main approach to poverty reduction and better quality lives. The weather patterns are by far less predictable than they were years ago due to climate change. Farmers have increasingly used pesticides to combat crop pests but they pose health risks if not used correctly. Irish potato farmers in the country, for instance, must spend big sums of money on pesticides to fight potato blight, a situation which has increased production costs and reduced profits.

Modern biotechnology is the most viable option to combat the threat posed by food insecurity and redeem our diminishing hope to eradicating poverty and hunger. Biotech tools are reliably used to develop stress-tolerant, pest resistant, high productive and more nutritious crop varieties. Thus, these improved crops have been proven a major contributor to improved food security and better health. 

Scientists at National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), Uganda’s premier agricultural organization, are developing climate-resilient and high-yielding crops using biotechnology. Among these crops are genetically modified (GM) Irish potatoes that are resistant to potato blight and bio-fortified GM banana varieties resistant to the dreaded banana bacterial disease. Other GM crops under research are CBSD-resistant cassava, nitrogen-use efficiency rice and nitrogen and water efficient salt-tolerant (NEWEST) rice.

However, farmers cannot access these improved crops since the country is devoid of a national biosafety regulatory framework. The country’s bid to pass the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill into law has not succeeded.  

As a country that has supported biotechnology research for years and established state of the art laboratories we ought to pass the bio-safety law for regulation of GMOs so that we can benefit from climate-resilient crops. By embracing biotechnology our neighbour Kenya is on the verge of overcoming the challenge of the African boll worm joining cotton producing giants like India, USA, China, Pakistan, and Brazil. Sudan and Ethiopia, among other African countries, have resorted to biotechnology to scale up agricultural production. Uganda cannot afford to be left behind. 

Michael J. Ssali is a senior editor with the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s leading independent daily. Ssali has found a niche in agricultural journalism and enjoys huge experience in agricultural reporting.