How biotechnology differs from GMOs

BY EDRICK BWAMBALE

At a time like this when Uganda’s agricultural productivity is at its lowest, it is important to debunk some myths about modern technology and how it can be adopted to enhance food production. The on-going debate on modern biotechnology is being wrecked by inaccurate narratives, and unfortunately many people assume that biotechnology is synonymous with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is not the case.

Biotechnology is the use of living things or their parts to develop useful products for mankind. Some biotechnological techniques date back to the earliest domestication of plants and animals by our ancestors, for agricultural purposes. Long before they understood the factors behind inheritance, ancient people were using artificial selection and hybridization to develop crop and animal varieties with desirable characteristics.

The use of yeast in brewing beer and baking bread is one of the earliest applications of biotechnology, and it is still in use today. Currently, local communities still use micro-organisms in fermentation to make local brew such as tonto from bananas.

Modern biotechnology, which has been in use since 1970, began with record-breaking advancements in science such as cell and tissue culture, artificial insemination as well as discovering the structure of DNA molecules.

On the other hand, genetic engineering technology is the selective and deliberate change of genes of an organism by man, for a particular purpose. For example, a GM crop can contain a gene that has been artificially inserted into it, instead of the plant acquiring it through pollination. Therefore, clearly genetic engineering is one of the techniques in modern technology, but not the only technique. In Uganda, GMO crops have never been authorized for commercial cultivation.

If they exist in our farmers’ fields, they are there illegally growing them. The GMO crop research undertaken by NARO scientists is limited to confined field trials under a bio safety system. An appropriate law is required to establish a regulations that allow the release of such products while preventing the introduction of unwanted products. With the ever increasing population, pests and diseases, climate change and land fragmentation, we need to embrace modern biotechnology to address these challenges.

I am sure that all technology meets resistance at first introduction, but instead of burying our heads in the sand, we should control what products of modern biotechnology are used in our country and how they are used, not only for our benefit but also for generations to come.

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