By Francis Kagolo
Researchers at Kawanda national agricultural research laboratory have developed new varieties of bananas resistant to the devastating banana bacterial wilt disease, nematodes and weevils. The bacterial wilt disease has ravaged banana crops across the country for over a decade with a capacity to cause 100% loss on a plantation. Leaves of an affected plant turn yellow and droop while the fruit gets discoloured and destroyed. The disease can spread quickly through a plantation and from farm to farm. Following its outbreak in 2001, farmers in parts of central and western Uganda have been cutting down their plantations to contain the disease, hence losing their source of income and food.
But Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, head of the biotechnology centre at Kawanda, said the future is bright. The new varieties developed in collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology, Australia, are still being monitored in confined field trial gardens at the research institute. According to Dr. Kiggundu, the varieties are a result of genetic engineering, a third generation form of biotechnology which allows the transfer of genes between species that would not naturally interbreed. Banana genes were mixed with genes from sweet pepper to get the variety that is resistant to bacterial wilt. "We first planted these bananas last year and we got 100% resistance against the bacterial wilt. If they show resistance for the second time, we will be able to plant them in various places around the country for final confirmation," Kiggundu said. He was addressing journalists including those visiting from Tanzania under the Biotechnology for Africa (B4FA) media fellowship.
Nematode and weevil resistant varieties
Besides bacterial wilt, the experts are also testing another variety of bananas that is resistant to both nematodes and weevil borers (Kayovu). The two pests attack the comb of the plant and weaken its roots, retarding its growth before it eventually falls when the wind comes. They account for between 30% and 40% of losses in banana plantations, although the damage can be heavier in poorly managed plantations, according to Dr. David Talengera, a research officer at the biotechnology centre. He said the nematode and weevil resistant genes were got from pawpaw and rice plants.
To reduce micronutrient deficiency and anaemia among Ugandans, the researchers have also fortified yellow bananas (Ndiizi), mostly eaten as fruits, with Vitamin A, Zinc and Iron. The three nutrients, essential for proper growth in children, intellectual development and supply of blood in the body, were got from genes of maize and a special type of foreign bananas called Aspina. "Banana is a staple food. Some people can eat bananas daily but still lack these nutrients. A number of children are stunted while many expectant mothers die due to lack of enough blood. This is what the new varieties are to address," said Kiggundu. He asked Parliament to expedite passing of the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012, to allow distribution of the new varieties to farmers, slated for 2015. Tabled in Parliament in February, the Bill provides for development and general release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and a regulatory framework to facilitate safe development and application of biotechnology. "We develop technologies which we feel should reach farmers to boost food and income security. If we don't pass that law for regulation of GMOs, we will be opening Uganda to danger," said Kiggundu. Kiggundu allayed fears of the products having ill-health consequences.
'For the first time in our civilisation, plant varieties will go through a rigorous approval process for safety. If the law is passed, crops will first be tested against toxicity and allergy issues. This has never been done before in our society," he stated. "If any GMO crop can pass these tests then be sure that it is safe. It is better to trust food that goes through strict testing regulations than one that is not tested." Asked about allegations that GMO seeds are expensive, Talengera said unlike US where seeds are developed by business companies whose seeds are patented, Kawanda is a government institution. "These (varieties) are public goods. We are government employees. The moment a farmer gets a banana variety and it works, they will be free to share the suckers." He cited Kenya, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt as other African countries that have embraced GMOs.