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Genetic modification used to fight Uganda's banana blight

By Natasha Maguder, CNN
  • Uganda's banana crop are threatened by banana Xanthomonas wilt
  • The country has the second largest banana crop in the world
  • Scientists in the country are trialing genetic modification as a solution
  • GM is banned in Uganda apart from in scientific research

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(CNN) -- "Banana in Uganda, it means everything," says Ugandan farmer Arthur Kamenya.

"It's our staple food. We eat it at breakfast, we eat it at lunch, we eat it at dinner, and we even have a beer from the banana."

For many of us, a banana is a simple fruit. Sweet, healthy, and tasty. In Uganda, the native word for banana is "matooke". It's no coincidence that the same word also means "food". Ten million tonnes of bananas are grown here every year, making it the world's second largest producer.

In recent years disease is affecting the yearly yield of this valuable crop. One disease, banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW), is proving deadly.

According to Professor Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, at the National Banana Research Program, 30% of Uganda's banana harvest has been infected with the disease. It can wipe out entire plantations in just 12 months, and has caused annual losses of half a billion dollars.

GM bananas in Uganda
If people are going to die of hunger today, then we cannot be talking about the future, and if GM is going to provide that solution, then as Africa we need to embrace that.
--Arthur Kamenya, Ugandan banana farmer

"I'm severely affected", says Kamenya, who has lost a third of his plants.

"From a healthy plant I expect to get at least four heavy bunches of banana. When they are affected by disease, I probably get three very, very tiny ones."

At the National Banana Research Program genetic modification trials are underway. Scientists there believe this is the only way to tackle the problem. Conventional methods, including selectively breeding resistant strains, have not worked. Even wild bananas are susceptible to BXW.

Two genes from a sweet pepper plant are used to try and create a banana plant which is resistant to BXW. The genes contain a protein that helps to seal off infected cells, stopping the spread of disease.

The genes were isolated at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, where they were tested on other crops, including tomatoes and potatoes. Now the hope is that they can save Uganda's national crop. Confined field trials started in October 2010.

Results from the lab were promising, says Professor Tushemereirwe, and indications are that the field results will follow suit.

But GM crops are not legal in Uganda. The National Banana Research Program has a special license which allows them to grow genetically modified organisms for research purposes only.

Professor Tushemereirwe says local opposition to genetically-modified (GM) foods could jeopardize his project.

"Voices against the scientific approach we are employing are threatening the opportunity", he says.

Arthur Kamenya says every farmer he knows would grow GM crops if they were given the chance. It's not the same for city-dwellers.

A recent survey carried out at the Banana Program shows that 58%of urban Ugandans are skeptical about eating GM foods. On the other hand, 95% of farmers are willing to grow them.

The debate about GM is unlikely to be concluded any time soon. But for farmer Arthur Kamenya at least, the way forward is clear.

"When someone is hungry, they've got to eat now! If people are going to die of hunger today, then we cannot be talking about the future, and if GM is going to provide that solution, then as Africa we need to embrace that."