Growing Controversy Over GMO Bananas in Uganda

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07 October, 2013

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From VOA Learning English, this is the Agriculture Report.

Today, we take you to a small banana plantation near Kampala. The trees are healthy and green, but Andrew Kiggundu does not like what he sees.

"The disease on the leaves you see right now is not the wilt, it is a different disease called black sigatoka. It is just killing off the leaves and causing significant yield loss. This is a big problem, although of course not as much as the wilt, because the wilt just destroys the whole plant."

Growing Controversy Over GMO Bananas in Uganda
A banana leaf affected with black sigatoka at the National Agricultural Research Organization, Uganda, Sept. 13, 2013. (Hilary Heuler/VOA)

Andrew Kiggundu works with the National Agricultural Research Organization, also known as NARO. The Ugandan government agency is developing genetically engineer bananas. The new plants are meant to resist black sigatoka and banana bacterial wilt, which has been destroying a large amounts of the country's banana crop.

Uganda is the world's top consumer of bananas. NARO Research Director Wilberforce Tushemereirwe says this is why it is so important to produce healthy plants.

"The disease keeps on moving around wiping out garden after garden, so you will go to areas where you find they have changed from banana to annual crops. That has already introduced food insecurity, because they are not used to handling annual crops."

The central African nation already permits testing of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would permit the development and distribution of such organisms through out the country. But some activists say genetically modified organisms would be dangerous to human health and the environment.

Giregon Olupot is a soil biophysicist at Makerere University in Kampala.

"There are a range of options that risk to be wiped [out], just by this technology. With bananas, tissue culture has worked well to engineer healthy plants. You then take these plants to a clean garden and maintain field hygiene. Why are we not giving emphasis to that technology?"

Most genetically modified seeds are patented, this means farmers must purchase them after each planting. Mr Olupot says, this might be possible for profitable farmers, but smaller farmers depend on their own seeds. In his opinion, selling genetically modified seeds to small farmers could trap them.

"If you are to go commercial, it has to be on a large scale. Now the farmers we are talking about, on average, have 0.4 hectares of land. It is simply not suitable for our farmers."

A public institution is developing Uganda's genetically modified bananas. NARO says no patent laws will restrict their use. But Mr Olupot says this would probably not be true with genetically modified crops introduced to Uganda in future. Mr Kiggundu says opponents of genetically modified plans have been strong in their criticisms. He says many farmers are now afraid of GMOs.

The Ugandan parliament is expected to pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill before the end of the year.

And that's the Agriculture Report from VOA Learning English.