potato image stock

March 2021
African potato industry doesn’t escape GMO resistance By Melanie Epp, contributing writer

Early last year, Ugandan experts forecast 40-50% adoption of the new bioengineered potato 3R Victoria in 15 years’ time. Field trials showed significantly higher yields without the use of fungicide. The variety could boost income and strengthen food security for Ugandan potato farmers. 

Potatoes are an important crop in Uganda, so much so that according to the International Potato Center (CIP), the government declared it a key crop. Latest figures show that some 300,000 Ugandan farmers produce 800,000 metric tons (176.4 billion pounds) of potatoes each year. Each hectare yields 7.5 metric tons, on average, but local experts believe yields could increase to as much as 40 metric tons per hectare.

Ugandan farmers are challenged by late blight. It’s a costly issue that affects as much as 60% of harvestable hectares.

“The challenge we face in growing potatoes is that if you do not spray them, they turn black,” Herbert Friday said in a Cornell Alliance for Science video. 

Friday is a Kacwekano-based potato farmer. He said spraying is expensive, and that money could be better used to cover costs at home. 

Spraying for late blight isn’t just costly, though; it’s also intensive work. Spraying is done mostly by hand, so farmers lacking proper protective clothing face potential health risks as well. 

PIC scientist Eric Magembe conducted three confined field trials in southwestern Uganda where 60% of Uganda’s potato crops are grown. Magembe said 3R Victoria showed no sign of disease in any of the trial fields. Trial manager Abel Arinaitwe is excited about the variety’s potential.

“This is a product which is going to be a liberator to a farmer who has been struggling all along with late blight disease,” he said. “To me, it will be a wonderful day when this product gets into the hands of the farmer.”

GMO resistance 

Getting 3R Victoria into Ugandan farmers hands is easier said than done, however. In fact, the forecasted 40-50% uptake figure is likely a gross overestimation, especially considering the status of genetically modified crops in Uganda. While one local paper stated that production could significantly increase at a much lower cost to producers, another calls GM crops “unnecessary” and “risky” for Uganda. The author of the latter, Raymond Mugisha, a chartered risk analyst and risk management consultant, besieged readers with the potential dangers of GMOs, saying they are particularly harmful to children and babies, and have been shown to damage immune systems, digestive function, brains, livers and testicles. Calling GM technology “terminator technology” and “suicide seeds,” and arguing against their reliance on pesticides, Mugisha is highly critical of what he calls the GMO agenda. He is not alone. 

According to a report by the Genetic Literacy Project, anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activist groups are strong in Uganda and are currently working to undermine Covid-19 vaccination efforts. This is not surprising, as the arguments used against vaccinations are similar to those used against GM technology. 

A 2020 report published in The Journal of Science Communication said activists have strategically positioned themselves as science communicators against the adoption of GMOs in Uganda. Activists, said the paper’s author, Ivan Nathanael Lukanda, have instead focused on targeting sympathetic communities and polarizing the debate.

For its part, the Ugandan government has been trying to come to an agreement on the use of GMOs since 2012. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill failed to pass then, and every time it’s been passed by parliament, the president has returned it with further queries. Activists often point to Burkina Faso when citing what could go wrong. 

Burkina Faso approved the cultivation of genetically modified Bt cotton in 2008. The cotton variety is capable of resisting bollworm, a pest that is capable of destroying up to 80% of yield on cotton farms. While a national survey revealed that farmers were able to cut down on pesticide use by 70%, and able to increase productivity by 22%, local processors apparently complained that the resulting fiber was too short in length. In 2016, the government decided to phase out GM cotton varieties. 

Should the Ugandan government approve the cultivation of GM potatoes, there are other factors that could influence adoption, namely the availability of quality seed, market value and market presence. 

While uptake offers growers benefits, Dr. Charles Mugoya, National Biosafety Committee chairperson, pointed to possible constraints. Traders will be required to use clear labeling when purchasing and trading, and 3R Victoria tubers will have to be kept separate from other tubers. Furthermore, seed companies selling 3R Victoria will be required to follow registration and inspection protocol for maintaining good stewardship, separate production lines and packaging in clearly labeled bags. 

If approved, though, Ugandan farmers could look forward to higher yields, lower production costs and less exposure to potentially harmful pesticides. Only time will tell.

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