The New Vision (Uganda) / via allAfrica.com
By Bernard Muthaka
July 21, 2009

http://allafrica.com

Kampala — FARMERS in drought-stricken regions in Uganda could soon sigh with relief with the stage set for confined field trials for drought-tolerant maize varieties.

Kasese in south-west Uganda has been found suitable for the trials to be conducted under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project. The initiative is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Howard G. Buffet Foundations to develop drought-tolerant maize for Africa.

The initiative will combine robust methods including conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, and biotechnology to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties that will eventually be made available, royalty-free, to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Dr. Godfrey Asea, the WEMA project country coordinator, the new variety is expected to increase yields by 20-35% over current varieties under drought conditions. He says the expected increase in yields will mean an additional two million metric tonnes to feed about 21 million people during drought years.

The project is being implemented in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. It is a public-private partnership led by the national agricultural research systems in the respective countries. Other institutions involved include the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and Monsanto.

The Nairobi-based non-profit organisation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is coordinating the project while National Agricultural Research Organisation is leading the implementation of WEMA activities in Uganda. National research services in the participating countries are providing their expertise in field testing and variety release and will be conducting trials of the developed maize varieties.

The project offers the national organisations opportunities to build their capacities in various aspects of biotechnology through partnership with private companies.

A team from Uganda recently participated in WEMA regulatory and Product Development team members training in South Africa on the modalities of applying for permits to conduct confined field trials for genetically modified crops (GMOs).

Conventional breeding can eventually be used to develop drought-resistant varieties, but the process is laborious and takes years. In the WEMA project, Monsanto will help accelerate the breeding process through marker-assisted breeding, which allows researchers to find and track genes associated with drought tolerance and focus on developing them.

Tolerance to drought and efficient water usage is widely seen as the highest priority in improving agriculture, with water tables dropping fast in many countries. With the global population expected to grow from the current 6.7 billion to more than nine billion people by 2050, water supplies will continue to shrink worldwide.

It has been estimated that 25% of losses due to drought can be eliminated by genetic improvement in drought tolerance, and a further 25% by application of water-conserving practices. Experts project that a modest increase in yields of 15% per acre per decade could overcome the anticipated declines in food production due to climate change.

Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, the WEMA project manager, says a major challenge to achieving food security in Africa is overcoming the misconceptions about genetically modified organisms that slow down the adoption of biotechnology products.

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