Diseases cost farmers billions in the face of technology

Nile Post News

Nile Post News

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Jonan Twinamatsiko is a biotechnologist, science and technology enthusiast.

On Friday last week, I left the urbanized Kampala and headed the rural Sembabule where I engaged with the local communities of Keirasya (predominantly dairy farmers) and Lwebitakuli (mainly crop farmers).  These communities depend on farming for survival.  They bank on farm produce to sustain themselves. They are faced with unprecedented challenges and are now almost food insecure.

In Lwebitakuli, farmers showed me several banana and cassava plantations claimed by Banana Bacterial Wilt and Cassava Brown Streak Diseases respectively. The dairy farmers in Keirasya made outcries asking for government’s intervention to help curb the adverse effects of two dreadful tick borne diseases; Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and East Coast Fever. They (cattle farmers) have resorted to establishing a farmers’ “force” in an attempt to manage the drastic spread of the viral FMD.

The Challenges these communities face are common to all Ugandan farmers. The agricultural sector employs about 80% of the forty plus million Ugandans. Due to climate change and other factors, Uganda faces numerous agricultural challenges. Both crop and Livestock farmers are threatened by persistent and devastating pests and diseases among other challenges. The most affected are major food crops (cassava, banana, and maize) farmers and the exotic cattle keepers.

According to National Agricultural Research Organization Report (2014) Uganda which is Africa’s leading banana producer loses $299.6m annually due to Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) disease. Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) causes an annual loss of $24.2m. Potential yield loss due to sweet potato weevil is estimated at 98 per cent yet Uganda is Africa’s most important sweet potato producer but it may lose out. According to Food and Agricultural Organization, based on the estimated yield loss of 15%-75% elsewhere, the presence of the armyworm in Uganda could translate to an annual loss of at least 450,000 metric tonnes of maize that is equivalent to $192m (about sh600b). Farmers also face another challenge of Maize Stem Borer that contributes to about 30 percent loss. Drought kills maize and causes a loss of $19.4m every year.

Animal diseases are a major constraint to livestock production and trade in Uganda. Cattle farmers like those in Keirasya face serious production losses and increased mortality rate due to FMD. The Uganda Risk Assessment Study (2015) estimated the total economic cost for diseases in cattle alone at $76.5 million per annum.  The presence of infectious diseases such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) limits Uganda’s ability to access major export markets, and her performance in the global export trade in livestock and livestock products is negligible due to tick-borne diseases.

It’s unfortunate to note that extreme agricultural losses are prevalent in the face of untapped technological solutions like biotechnology. Farmers are starved for disease resistant and drought tolerant crop varieties bred by NARO scientists because no law is in place to grant farmers’ access to available novel cultivars.  Researchers under National Agricultural Organization have developed several crops with adaptation to climate change like drought tolerance and disease resistance which include transgenic banana resistant to bacterial wilt disease, cassava with resistance to brown streak disease, maize with resistance to stem borer and army warm pests and other modified crop varieties. Due to lack of legislation, researchers can only stop at conducting confined field trials to test performance of these varieties and so crop farmers can’t access these varieties until a law is enacted.  Livestock farmers are faced with a similar problem because they can’t access a genetically modified tick vaccine developed by Ugandan scientists.

Jonan Twinamatsiko

A biotechnologist, science and technology enthusiast.

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