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KAMPALA, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - In a small garden at the Entebbe Botanical garden, about 40 kilometres from Kampala, a few yellowish plants are trying to adapt to their new environment.
“We believe that these rice species have genes that help them fight disease and we want to extract those to use them in developing new varieties or improving existing ones to fight disease such as yellow mottle, a notorious rice disease,” says Waswa.
The rice yellow mottle virus is common in Uganda and the biggest threat to the country’s move to become a major rice producer. According to the European Journal of Plant Pathology, the virus is stunts the growth of the plant, causing “crinkling, mottling and yellowish streaking of the leaves.”
Uganda produces 180,000 metric tonnes of rice compared to local demand for the cereal that stands at 240,000 metric tonnes. Figures from the Uganda revenue authority show that the East African country spends 60 million dollars annually on rice imports to cover the demand deficit. Though according to Dr. Geoffrey Asea, head of the cereal department at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NACRRI) in Uganda, this deficit has reduced over the last few years. The introduction of the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) – rice developed by the West Africa Rice Development Association to improve the yield of African rice varieties – has aided with this reduction.
But the project to improve local rice varieties to develop disease resistance and early maturity varieties is part of a wider program to turn Uganda from a rice importer to a regional exporter.
“We have rice varieties such as: Supper, believed to have originated from Tanzania; (the) Sindano variety, also believed to be from Tanzania; and other varieties from Congo. All these will have to be improved,” Asea says.
Asea says some of the rice varieties, such as Supper, are renowned for their aroma but they have a long maturity period of between six to eight months. The plan is to shorten the period of maturity to between three to four months.
But Dr. David Kamukama, vice chairman of the National Organic Agriculture Movement in Uganda, says the country could instead lose out on the regional market by going GM when other countries in the region oppose the idea.
“We are part of the Common Market for East Africa which includes five other member states, many of them have said no to GMO’s (genetically modified organisms), so who will buy (the modified rice)? Our biggest market is Southern Sudan and Rwanda who will not allow GMO’s. And the East African Community has not harmonised their position on this,” says Kamukama.
Kamukama believes that Uganda can still increase rice production without tampering with the existing rice species by simply creating access to markets to stir production and teaching farmers better farming methods.
But the project for GM rice is still going ahead. NACRRI received six million dollars from the republic of Japan in July for the construction of a regional centre for farmers and scientists majoring in rice production.
Under Japan’s African Development initiative it also launched the Coalition for African Rice Development. It is a research collaboration on rice whose goal is to double rice production between 2008 and 2018. Asea hopes researchers will be able to develop a genetically modified rice variety soon.
Salongo Waswa, a paddy rice farmer in Wakiso district on the fringes of Kampala, is worried that the new rice varieties being promised may not be as tasty as the ones he has been growing for years.
“As a farmer I am interested in improving yields but will the farmers like their rice variety they want to bring? Will it taste like what I am growing now?” asks Salongo Waswa.
Salongo Waswa is also concerned if he will become dependent on suppliers for seed, like is currently the case with the farmers of NERICA rice. “With the Supper rice you see here I just pick a few seeds from the last harvest which I plant and I don’t have to buy (more seed). I hope that will be the case with the new rice.”
But Entebbe Botanical garden’s John Mulumba Waswa says that the modification of the wild rice is inevitable: “Many crops in present day cultivation are the result of domestication in ancient times and later improved. What we are doing is to extract those traits in the wild varieties which are being multiplied to form new cultivars.”
The wild rice varieties collected mostly from the Mabira natural forest in central Uganda may not be indigenous to Uganda but are believed to have adapted to the weather and climate here. It is a trait that scientists believe can be extracted and implanted in future varieties.
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