Uganda Sets Aside GM Ban to Save Banana Crops

Farmer Gene

Excerpted from The Guardian, March 9, 2011:

A typical adult in Uganda eats at least three times his or her body weight in bananas each year, more than anywhere else on Earth. Different varieties are steamed, boiled, roasted, turned into gin and beer, or simply peeled and eaten raw, such as the tiny sukali ndizi, considered by some experts to be finest banana in the world.

But in recent years a devastating bacterial disease has swept across Uganda and, to a lesser extent, neighboring countries, causing annual banana crop losses to the region of more than $500m. The rapid spread of banana Xanthomonas wilt, or BXW, which destroys the entire plant and contaminates the soil, “has endangered the livelihoods of millions of farmers who rely on banana for staple food and income”, according to an article in the journal Molecular Plant Biology last year.

On a sprawling campus outside Kampala, Wilberforce Tushemereirwe and his colleagues at the National Banana Research Program have been on a quest to defeat the disease by building a better banana. This has involved adding to the fruit a sweet pepper gene that has already improved disease resistance in several vegetables.

Laboratory tests on the genetically modified bananas have been highly promising, with six out of eight strains proving 100 percent resistant to BXW. Field tests have now started in a fenced-off, guarded plot on the edge of the campus.

Results from the trials, expected later this year, could have a strong bearing on the country’s future food security – and indeed its entire policy on agriculture. GM crops are still banned in Uganda, and the scientists had to get special permission just to conduct their tests. While acknowledging that it is a highly controversial topic, Tushemereirwe says the risk of doing nothing is too great.

If we just leave this, bananas will slowly disappear from Uganda,” he said.

Leena Tripathi, a plant biotechnologist at IITA who helped steer the project, said introducing the gene did not affect the quality of the banana and presented no health risks.

The beauty of the genetic engineering is that you can be very precise,” she said.

Other GM banana experiments are under way in Uganda, including one to fortify the fruit with iron and vitamin A.

A study by Enoch Kikulwe, a Ugandan assistant professor of international food economics at the University of Gottingen, Germany, revealed more opposition to GM crops among the elite than those in poorer villages. Most studies show that better education led to more acceptance of GM foods, he said.

But for Kamenya the farmer, the anti-GM stance was hypocritical.

Most of the people against this have choices,” he said. “Somebody who is hungry does not have a choice. GM, organic or whatever – you have to feed the people.”

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