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[KAMPALA] Ugandan researchers will carry out a series of field trials on some of the major food crops that have been genetically modified (GM), following several recent approvals by the Uganda National Biosafety Committee, despite a lack of clear legislation on commercialising any such products within the country.

They will seek to develop both transgenic and conventional maize varieties tolerant to climate change-induced drought; GM cassava resistant to virulent cassava brown streak virus ravaging the starchy root crop across eastern and central Africa; GM bananas with engineered resistance to Xanthomonas bacterial infections; and cotton plants containing both Bt and 'roundup-ready' genes.

According to Yona Baguma, vice-chairman of the committee, the approvals — given in July and followed by planting that started last month (September) and will go on until November — are "historic". They are clear signals that Uganda's scientific community has built capacity in molecular biology and convinced the committee it can adhere to national and international guidelines on GM organisms, he said.

"It is also significant that the committee has matured with functional and competent systems to assess and evaluate applications, with rejections and approvals," said Baguma.       

Godfrey Asea, principal investigator for the maize trials and national project coordinator for Water Efficient Maize for Africa said: "Our confined field trial site is ready to plant the first transgenic maize in November 2010.

"This shall be a trial on efficacy for drought-tolerance by GM and conventionally-bred maize. When it succeeds, we expect to carry out more trials on starch content, taste, production outputs and to commercialise by 2017," Asea told SciDev.Net.

Uganda has previously approved and carried out a field trial on banana to test black sigatoka disease resistance (2007 - 2009), two trials to evaluate Bt and roundup ready cotton (2009 - 2010), one trial to test cassava mosaic virus resistance (2009 - 2010), and one ongoing trial to test banana bio-fortified for vitamin A and iron.

But the country still lacks a national biotechnology legal framework for releasing such crops on the market. The 2008 National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill has still not been approved by Parliament and, with elections expected in February next year, the date of its passage is still unsure.

But Godber Tumushabe, chief executive officer of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment — a policy think-tank — said Uganda is unnecessarily rushing to develop GM crops before it builds the critical scientific and infrastructural capacity to ensure the products are safe.

Only three African countries are currently growing GM crops commercially: Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa. Several others are conducting research and field trials, including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, mainly focusing on staple local crops such as cowpea.