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Uganda to introduce genetically engineered banana
Uganda could soon introduce genetically modified bananas after a successful genetically engineered sweet banana variety proved resistant to pests and diseases.

The technology will improve the quality of banana, an important food and cash crop whose production has declined due to diseases, especially the banana wilt disease. Genetically engineered bananas will also contribute to food security and improve household incomes. Almost 24.5 per cent of Ugandan household’s income is contributed by bananas. Some 70 per cent of farmers grow them as a staple food as well as for brewing local liquor.

Scientists estimate that if the technology is applied to other varieties, the country could save up to $8 billion it is said to have earmarked in the next five years for fighting the banana bacterial wilt disease. The disease is currently ravaging the country and spreading to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania.

The genetically engineered variety was developed by Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a Ugandan scientist based in Belgium who has now applied to the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) for a permit to import it to Uganda.

“The Council has already cleared it for field testing after importation from Belgium. This innovation will pave the way for research on other varieties to make them resistant to diseases,” said Arthur Makara, the biosafety desk officer at the Council, the country’s leading institution for science, technology and innovation development.

The tested banana type will be brought to the Kawanda Research Institute (Kari), which has just completed construction of a greenhouse to field test bananas for resistance to bacterial wilt and black sigatoka fungal disease, said Andrew Kiggundu, a plant biotechnologist at Kari. The bacterial wilt is highly destructive, wiping out at least 90 per cent of the fruit on the trees it affects. When it affects a tree, it becomes poisonous to both humans and animals.

Scientists say the commonest way the disease spreads is through bees, which pick up pollen from one banana and transport it to another. Mr Kiggundu said more crops have been earmarked for testing before the end of this year at Namulonge Research Institute and the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro).

Other crops that are slated for field testing at Kari are genetically modified cassava, which is resistant to the mosaic virus, sweet potatoes rich in Vitamin A content and BT cotton. “The varieties we have developed have increased resistance to pests, are nutritive and fast growing,” said Mr Kiggundu.

But scientists have warned that although the genetically engineered crops are being developed, they may not reach farmers any time soon as the country has no legal framework to enable their distribution.

“We have new technology but we are being left behind because there is no policy in place,” said Dr Charles Mugoya of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asereca).

“The GMOs will increase farm incomes and minimise environmental impact as there is pesticide reduction. We need technology to drive our food production,” said Dr Mugoya during the launch of the 2006 Global Status of Commercialised Biotech report in Kampala. The government is in the process of putting in place an enabling law to allow the distribution of the GMO bananas.

The National Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy, which will guide the activities and distribution of GMO resources, is awaiting approval by parliament. “We in parliament will do everything possible to ensure that the biotechnology policy is approved and biosafety bill enacted into law,” said John Arimpa, vice chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources.

Uganda has three banana varieties — sweet bananas, plantain and the East African highland bananas (matooke), which are only grown and consumed in East Africa.