News / Africa

    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)
    A banana leaf affected with black sigatoka at the National Agricultural Research Organization, Uganda, Sept. 13, 2013. (Hilary Heuler/VOA)
    Uganda is poised to introduce genetically modified organisms as parliament considers a bill to regulate them.  The modified crops could be the answer to devastating diseases like banana wilt.  But the issue has been highly controversial.

    On a small, tidy banana plantation just outside Kampala, Andrew Kiggundu walked among the plants turning over leaves.  The plot was lush and green, but still, he did not like what he saw.

    “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," he said. "This is a big problem, although of course not as much as the wilt, because the wilt just destroys the whole plant.”

    Kiggundu works with the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), an Ugandan government agency developing genetically modified bananas.  The new plants are meant to be resistant to black sigatoka and banana bacterial wilt, which has been wiping out vast swaths of the country’s crop.

    The lab at the National Agricultural Research Organization grows disease-resistant genetically modified bananas, Uganda, Sept. 13, 2013. (Hilary Heuler/VOA)The lab at the National Agricultural Research Organization grows disease-resistant genetically modified bananas, Uganda, Sept. 13, 2013. (Hilary Heuler/VOA)
    x
    The lab at the National Agricultural Research Organization grows disease-resistant genetically modified bananas, Uganda, Sept. 13, 2013. (Hilary Heuler/VOA)
    The lab at the National Agricultural Research Organization grows disease-resistant genetically modified bananas, Uganda, Sept. 13, 2013. (Hilary Heuler/VOA)
    Uganda is the world’s number one consumer of bananas, a staple in terms of food security.  NARO Research Director Wilberforce Tushemereirwe said 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," he said. "That has already introduced food insecurity, because they are not used to handling annual crops.”

    Uganda already allows trials of genetically modified organisms and a Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill before parliament would set the legal stage for their development and distribution.

    But the issue has created a firestorm among Ugandan activists, with many claiming genetically modified organisms would be dangerous to human health, the environment and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

    Giregon Olupot, a soil biophysicist at Kampala’s Makerere University, has been an outspoken critic of the technology.

    “There are a range of options that risk to be wiped [out], just by this technology," said Olupot.  "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, requiring farmers to re-purchase them after each planting.  This might work for commercial farmers, said Olupot, but Uganda’s subsistence farmers relied on their own seeds.  Marketing genetically modified organisms to them could mean trapping them in a system they could not afford, he said.

    “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,” said Olupot.

    Uganda’s genetically modified bananas are being developed by a public institution, and NARO said no patent restrictions would apply to them.  But Olupot said this would probably not be the case with future genetically modified crops introduced to Uganda.

    Anti-GMO campaigners have been diligent in spreading their message, remarked Kiggundu, and many farmers were now afraid of genetically modified organisms.

    “They are, because of course they have heard a lot of bad things about them from those who are trying to de-campaign the technology.  And for the few times that I have been out there and able to tell them the truth, you could see second thoughts.  That sort of response tells you that they have maybe a preconceived idea,” he said.

    The Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill is expected to pass before the end of the year.  But Olupot insisted that if a referendum on genetically modified organisms were held today among Ugandan farmers, the response would be an overwhelming “no.”

    You May Like

    Video Twists and Turns Aplenty in US Presidential Race

    Even as Americans pause for this week’s Memorial Day holiday, much attention is focused on the presidential contest

    China's Education Reforms Spark Protest

    Beijing is putting a quota system in place to increase the number of students from poor regions attending universities

    The Struggle With Painkillers: Treating Pain Without Feeding Addiction

    'Wonder drug' pain medications have turned out to be major problem: not only do they run high risk of addicting the user, but they can actually make patients' chronic pain worse, US CDC says

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora