As legislators consult constituents on biotechnology processes that will mitigate lifelong challenges in farmers’ lives, it is important to remember that small-holder banana farmers are losing entire plantations to Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) disease.
Every day, a cassava farmer is making losses on sales due to crop infected with Cassava Brown Streak disease, and a maize farmer is fighting to ensure that his maize fields do not dry up due to limited water retention in the dry season. Low farm outputs are driving up market prices for most affected crops. And several other carry-on effects abound.
But in the laboratories and confined fields of National Agriculture Research Organisation (Naro) institutes lies the most present and suitable solution to the above and more crop challenges in Uganda.
Biotech experiments are going on at Naro institutes in Kawanda and Namulonge, and according to the head of the Biotech Laboratories, Dr Andrew Kiggundu, Naro has produced banana varieties that are 100 per cent resistant to BBW. “We’ve tested them in the field twice, and they still hold to that resistance. We are going to go to the next level and test these plants in different areas in Uganda, so that we see that there’s no environmental influence on the expression or the efficacy of those genes,” he said.
According to Dr Yona Baguma, deputy director in charge of research, Naro , “the biotech banana is targeted for release to farmers by 2016”. But farmers will not be able to access these improved varieties if the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 is not passed into law, to regulate the safe research, development, and release of GM crops onto the market.
How the biotech banana was developed
Ugandans should be informed and assured that genetically modified crops are safe for consumption because the genes used are from crops which already feature on many people’s food tables.
Other times, researchers simply “turn on” or “turn off” a gene that is predisposing a crop to danger, for example, disease. And in the case of the BBW resistant banana, Dr Kiggundu explains that all the varieties of banana in Uganda are susceptible to the disease and so could not provide a gene to counteract the disease. “We then looked for genes that had resistance to BBW and we found them in sweet pepper.
The genes had already been discovered and reported by collaborating public researchers in Taiwan. Since we already had developed capacity to transform them, we could carry out genetic engineering of the bananas”, Dr Kiggundu said.
He added that the genes were introduced into bananas, evaluated, tested in the greenhouses, in the field where they were exposed to conditions where they could be infected, and found that they were 100 per cent resistant.
According to Dr Barbara Zawedde of the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC), when developing of GM crops, researchers are required to follow a rigorous process to ensure the safety of humans is considered at all stages of development. She also notes that it is important the GM banana and other GM crops under research in Uganda are tested in farmers’ fields and in relevant parts of the country to ensure consistency of a good product.
She added that Naro is conducting GM research under the National Biotechnology Policy of 2008, however, testing of these products by farmers requires putting in place a regulating law.
Farmers cry out for biotech crops
Last month, farmers under the Mpigi Farmers’ Association made a plea to government to release to them the biotech bananas that are resistant to BBW. The farmers were taking part in a dialogue organised by Naro, UBIC and the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE).
During the dialogue, farmers expressed their concerns about biotech crops and were enlightened on how researchers are addressing the risks. One farmer, Mohammed Mubiru said, “I have already been convinced that GM crops are good for our agriculture and now I want to know how I can access these seeds”.
Regarding health effects of GM crops, Dr Kiggundu notes that: “this is the first time in human civilisation that seed or improved varieties have to go through these safety evaluations, and a lot of health bodies around the world have already argued that GM food is probably safer than what we’re already consuming now”.
The farmers also expressed fears about counterfeiting of GM seed, but were reassured that Naro will avail GM seeds to farmers for free at initiation and subsequent multiplication will be done through competent companies that have been certified to distribute seed.
In a separate interview, Grace Rukundo, a farmer from Busumbi village, Lwengo District said the current measures devised for preventing BBW are painstakingly impractical. “We have to clean our farm implements with JIK (a bleaching solution) to disinfect them so they do not have the spores which transmit the BBW virus.
We were also told to burn our plantations when BBW is confirmed; but JIK is expensive and government has increased taxes on kerosene,” he said. “How then can we afford these; moreover we can’t even afford kerosene for our lamps”, Rukundo added. A bottle of JIK costs about Shs5,000 and at least one carton is needed in a month. “I welcome biotech bananas and I will grow them if Naro shows me how to”, Rukundo said.
The crops agricultural officer in Lwengo District, Christopher Kyagaba, urged for more sensitisation on the need for biotech crops because “the locals are now resorting to root tubers and maize in an area where matooke is synonymous with food”.
Banana Bacterial Wilt disease was first reported in Uganda around 2000, in central Uganda around Kayunga. Farmers were reporting a disease that caused the plants to wilt and was rapidly spreading, affecting all the different varieties. The disease can be transmitted if an infected farm implement is used on an uninfected plant, leaving spores.
The writer is the media and public relations officer, Uganda Biosciences Information Center