Crop scientists at National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) say they have made a breakthrough in developing cooking banana varieties, which are resistant to Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW).
For the last 15 years, farmers and scientists have been searching for ways eradicate the wilt, which has spread to all banana-growing areas in the country.
BBW causes rotting of the plant and fruit and can wipe entire plantation if no control measures are taken. It has no chemical treatment, and to prevent the wilt from spreading, an infected plant must be uprooted and destroyed. This makes eradicating it a hard task.
Speaking at a sensitisation workshop for journalists last week, the scientists said that in collaboration with a number of partnering institutions, developed genetically modified (GM) matooke that have shown 100 per cent resistance to BBW.
Their resistance has been registered at screen house and confined field trial levels.
This year the scientists will be doing first trials outside Kawanda at Mbarara Zonal Agriculture and Research Development Institute (in Mbarara District) and Bulindi Zonal Agriculture and Research Development Institute in Hoima District.
“Researchers are now ready to test the first generation of cooking bananas with resistance to BBW in multi-location filed trials within Uganda,” said Dr David Talengera, a biotechnology research scientist.
It has taken five years to develop the BBW-resistant bananas. The field trials will take three years, then the varieties will be reviewed and authorised for release by national regulatory bodies.
Dr Talengera added that the varieties were developed using PFLP gene that was isolated from green pepper. It is transferred to single cells of bananas before they are converted into plants.
Speaking about genetic modifications that scientists are using, Dr Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, the director, NARL, noted it is in the best interest of Ugandans and should be supported.
“We are at war with pests and diseases, what we want is what they also want, our task is to defeat them and they also want to defeat us,” he said. “Pests and diseases are evolving at a much faster rate. Do we fold hands and say let crops disappear one by one?”
He added that genetic engineering is used where conventional methods are not applicable.
Uganda is the second leading producer of bananas in the world after India producing 12 million tons annually. As many as 75 per cent of famers in Uganda grow bananas for food and income security.
The country also has the highest annual consumption of bananas in the world at 240 kilogram per capita. Only two per cent of bananas grown in Uganda is exported to neigbouring countries like Kenya and South Sudan.
Dr Talengera said the demand for bananas in Kampala city is six million tons per year but only three million tons are supplied.
The researchers said if the wilt is not contained Uganda is likely to lose $953 million from sale of bananas annually. In areas like Mukono, Mpigi, Buikwe and Masaka the wilt wiped out banana plantations. It also spread to Eastern DR Congo and Rwanda.
However, for the BBW resistant bananas to be grown across the country for consumption will require passing of National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 into Act.
The bill which was tabled before parliament in 2013 among provides for development and release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the regulatory framework for development of biotechnology.