The process of identifying a desired trait, getting it from one crop and inserting it in a crop where it is absent, is called molecular breeding.
It is usually conducted by crop scientists who study the DNA or cells of a particular plant and get out a trait responsible for example resistance to pests and diseases, tolerant to drought, high-yielding and early-maturing, among others.
Why molecular breeding?
The breeding process currently being used in Uganda takes researchers 15 years to release an improved crop seed or new variety, while molecular breeding technology takes researchers only 5 years for new crop varieties to be released.
At the moment, if researchers in developing countries including Uganda wanted to develop the groundnuts that are tolerant to drought, they make the crosses to get new plant line that can be as many as 2000.
The selected lines are taken to the field or gardens and each of those is monitored to find out which one is better against drought. They then plant it again, a process that can be repeated for some time until the best line is identified, and this is likely to last about 15 years.
Rajeev Varshney, the global research programme director at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), made the remarks in an interview on the sidelines of an international meeting on to review meeting on the progress made in research in legumes and serials to increase food production that can shield farmers from hunger and starvation.
According to Rajeev, molecular breeding will help researchers come up with new varieties of leguminous crops, like beans, cow peas, chickpeas, groundnuts, sorghum, and finger millet among others. In Uganda, the project is working on groundnuts, beans, sorghum and finger millet.
This is being carried out through the National Crop Research Resources Institute (NaCRRI) and the National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) under the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO) of Uganda.
Why the selected crops
Rajeev explained that in developing countries such as Africa, Asia farmers depend on Agriculture for their livelihoods and most of the crops they mainly depend on include legumes such as beans, serials like millet which can be grown with minimal requirements.
However, farmers are failing to increase the productivity and quantities of the selected crops due to various reasons. First, according to Rajeev, is that farmers do not have access to high yielding or improved varieties.
Secondly, farmers are still growing 20 to 30-year-old verities, which are no longer high yielding, but also easily attacked by pests and diseases, added Rajeev.
What are limitations of traditional breeds?
He explained that older crop varieties give very low yields. For example, groundnuts that are being grown in Uganda yield less than one tonne per hectare and yet the process of releasing new varieties is too slow although other countries are already using modern methods.
“At ICRISAT, we are now encouraging our partners and those we work with to embrace modern methods of breeding to enhance this production so that farmers can harvest more like two tons of ground nuts in the same area and one of the technologies is molecular breeding,” Rajeev added.
Benefits of using modern ways of breeding
Apart from churning out varieties that can withstand changes in climate and productivity, it will be easier for researchers to develop crops that can address nutritional needs. This is because malnutrition is serious countries in developing countries.
“In our areas, children do not have good amount of proteins and nutrients so when having issues of nutritional deficiency-related diseases and go to a medical doctor, that is okay but we do not want to address nutritional issues with medicine. Our job as researchers is to connect agriculture, medical and r human health through research,” Rajeeve added.
Climate change and new varieties
When it comes to climate change, new breeding methods will help produce crops like maize, sorghum, finger millet which are mainly consumed in developing countries in a short time because these are being affected more with the changing weather patterns.
“We know that as a result of climate change, many countries will be adversely affected, many countries are growing as human population, we are dependent on four crops rice, maize and wheat but after 10 or 20 years when we have serious impact of climate change, we will not be able to grow these crops in that times.
“That time crops like groundnuts, sorghum and finger millet, which are indigenous crops for developing countries, can only be preserved with the help of molecular tools where we can identify the genes and develop better varieties that are drought and heat tolerant,” Rajeev added.
Ugandan researchers respond
Dr Kalule Okello, a breeder of groundnuts at NaSSARI, explained that molecular breeding is the best, but may not easily be conducted in Uganda due to various reasons.
Okello said there is need for better laboratories that will keep the DNA or desired trait for some time after it has been removed from a crop to be inserted in another.
“This means we must have DNA analysis laboratories, human resources, training of scientists to understand the new breeding methods, so once this is in place, it will make our work easier and much faster,” added Okello.