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Uganda has approved confined field trials of genetically modified (GM) cotton, the second GM crop to be trialled in the country.

The country's National Biosafety Committee (NBC) gave the go ahead 'in principle' for the trials of a Bt cotton variety, which is resistant to the bollworm pest, in August 2007, so long as certain conditions were met.

Those measures are now being put in place, and the trials will begin in May, according to Arthur Makara, senior science officer (Biosafety) and NBC secretary.

Bollworm is a devastating pest in Uganda, causing crop losses of up to 40 per cent and wiping out an entire crop during "pest surges", Makara told SciDev.Net.

The move follows the approval in April 2006 of trials of bananas resistant to Black Sigatoka, a bacterial disease that causes necrosis of leaves and low crop yields.

The National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI), under the National Agricultural Research Organisation, will carry out the Bt cotton trials in Uganda's Kasese district.

Eemetai Areke, NaSARRI director and lead investigator of the project, said that the trials will provide vital information for the development of a Bt cotton variety suited to the Ugandan environment.

The study, says Makara, aims to prove that Bt cotton can address the problem of bollworm damage in Uganda. "It is aimed at collecting data on the potential of Bt cotton as a remedy to the bollworm problem," he says.

The trial sites will be isolated from other cotton sites by distances of no less than 200 metres and will be fenced off with strong fencing material, as recommended by the NBC. Entry will be restricted to the scientists working on the trials. 

Makara says the trials signal that Uganda is taking further steps to increase the capacity of its scientists to research, and understand, the principles and practices of modern biotechnology.

"The data they will collect will inform policy decisions in case of a request for commercialisation of Bt cotton in Uganda in the future, or in the case of legal or illegal transboundary movements of Bt cotton through Uganda," he said.