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Scientists and Entrepreneurs strategise to produce millions of biotechnology planting materials PDF Print E-mail

Following renewed regional efforts to improve agricultural productivity to enhance economic growth, the quality of the environment and improve livelihoods in East and Central Africa (ECA), scientists and entrepreneurs recently held a workshop to lay strategies to produce millions of planting materials using tissue culture biotechnology.

Declining agricultural production caused by the biotic stresses (pests and diseases) to staple crops, and lack of quality germplasm delivery mechanisms to help smallholder farmers to cultivate efficiently, were identified as some of the major  constraints to agricultural production, a draft report by the Tissue Culture Business Network (TCBN) general assembly 2008 disclosed. The report, compiled by the ASARECA Agro-Biodiversity and Biotechnology Programme, notes that tissue culture applications are producing results and should remain focused on key crops, which can then be used to pilot on other crops.

A CGIAR centre, IITA and a regional research organization, ASARECA, presented the regional status of tissue culture technology. Representatives of public and private enterprises from Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda presented case studies on tissue culture biotechnology applications and noted that tissue culture technology had taken route in the public institutions in all the six countries.
Tissue culture is a biotechnological tool which uses fragments of tissue from animals and plants to multiply, change size, form or function. The technology is used for mass propagation of selected genotypes, virus-free plants, and haploid plants for breeding purposes. The technology is also handy for conservation of species that are threatened with extinction, regeneration of declining species through a process known as organogenesis or embryogenesis; protoplast fusion and through product synthesis in bioreactors.

Increased demand
According to the TCBN general assembly report of 2008, the demand for tissue culture plantlets is increasing and that the governments and farmers are interested in using biotechnology and establishment of the basic facilities to promote the use of tissue culture technology.  The ECA States, said the report, have set themselves annual targets to produce millions of tissue culture plantlets for the farmers. In Kenya for example, low cost facilities have been developed and tissue culture technology has been mainstreamed into the university curricula.

Challenges
The General Assembly identified lack of tissue culture facilities, supplies and qualified scientists and technicians as the main constraints to the application of the technology in ECA.
Participants noted that the future of applying the technology would depend on how the countries strategise to build institutional and human capacity. Lack of awareness, poor regulation and inadequate funding were also cited as major obstacles that must be overcome.

Private sector picks interest
A number of  private sector players are beginning to pick interest in tissue culture technology, but all of them were still constrained by the hish cost of inputs which in turn made the cost of tissue culture plantlets high. In East Africa, Agrogenetic technologies (AGT) in Uganda and Genetic technologies Ltd (GTL) have firmly established themselves in the regional market and many more similar firms are required if market demand for tissue culture matereials is to be met.


Capacity building
Participants, the report says, urged TCBN and ASARECA  to invest -on research into low cost tissue culture systems. The report recommends that the Thai technology for producing low cost tissue culture plantlets should be studied and adopted in ECA. While these efforts get underway, the report notes, there is need to study the market potential and the cost of production of plantlets that were generated and distributed to clients on the basis of subsidised inputs. This could help indicate profit margins for tissue culture investments, says the report.
The participants charged TCBN with the responsibility to mobilise resources to support development of infrastructure in both private and public institutes. They cited the development of centres of excellence as one of the ways to harmonise and upscale technologies.  It was also noted that tissue culture protocols already exist in the ECA region. What is needed is, delegates pointed out, are mechanisms to access the protocols, fine-tuning them and optimising the already existing ones.

Lack of awareness
It was noted that there is lack of awareness by farmers about tissue culture technology, its products and the need to use them. Participants therefore agreed that existing communication strategies be strengthened. ASARECA and BeCA were urged to develop regional communication action plans. The participants were informed that ASARECA is focusing resources to build the capacity of national institutions in disease indexing and diagnosis to facilitate the process of tissue culture.

The participants also agreed that there is need for relevant policies for access, evaluation and use of new technologies such as aeroponics on Irish potatoes by GTL. Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium. Aeroponic culture differs from both hydroponics and in-vitro (plant tissue culture) growing. Unlike hydroponics, which uses water as growing medium and essential minerals to sustain plant growth, aeroponics is conducted without a growing medium.

To sustain tissue culture biotechnology development, the meeting noted, mechanisms are needed to monitor the period materials should stay in the hands of farmers before replenishing with fresh materials. They also pointed out that a two-way value chain from the laboratories to  the farmer and back to the laboratories needs to be developed and that the capacity for virus indexing which is already available in Uganda, needs to be developed and sustained.

In East and Central Africa the need for clean planting materials and for mass propagation of selected genotypes cannot be overstated.  The market is already demanding pest and disease free planting materials in large quantities from several sources including seed companies, research and extension. However, there is no organised business to meet the demand. In response to this challenge, the Agro-Biodiversity and Biotechnology programme supported a tissue culture workshop in Bujumbura, Burundi in 2006. During the workshop, participants agreed to establish the Tissue Culture Business Network (TCBN) to build capacity to multiply and make appropriate tissue culture technologies available. Also discussed was the Knowledge sharing, certification, partnership, germplasm conservation, competitive grant system and the need for an administrative office of TCBN. Some of the activities to address these issues will benefit from ASARECA Agro-biodiversity and biotechnology programme grants.

ASARECA is currently supporting a number of tissue culture research initiatives. Four projects that use tissue culture biotechnology as a tool in research for development are being supported. They include the genetic transformation platforms for cassava project, enhancement of cassava and sweet potato tissue culture applications project, genetic engineering of maize against drought for drought tolerance project and the conservation and sustainable use of cassava and sweet potato genetic resources project.

TCBN comes after numerous efforts to secure the future of agriculture by a number of research organisations. IITA is engaged in production to marketing research on the use of endophytes to enhance banana tissue culture and mass propagation to fight the banana black sigatoka fungus and banana wilt that has devastated the crop.  Hese actvitities will be well served and enhanced by the network.  The 2ndnd General assembly is planned to be held in December 2009.

 

 

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