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

EU Court Fines Poland for Hosting CIA 'Black Sites'

Ruling is first time a court has acknowledged suspects were held and tortured at the sites, under US program launched following the 9/11 terrorist attacks More

Migrant Issues Close to Home Spur Groups to Take Action

Groups placing water, food in the desert, or aiding detainees after release, have one common goal: no more deaths of migrants crossing illegally into the US More

Video At AIDS Conference, Prevention Pill Stirs Excitement

Truveda shows promise, spurring debate over access and other approaches More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debatei
X
Shelley Schlender
July 24, 2014 6:43 PM
In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Death Toll From Israel-Gaza Conflict Surpasses 700

Gaza officials say a shelling hit a compound housing a United Nations-run school in the Gaza Strip, killing more than a dozen people, during an Israeli offensive in the area. Heavy fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas militants continued on Thursday, pushing up the death toll. So far, more than 730 Palestinians and 35 Israelis have been killed in the conflict. VOA's Scott Bobb has the latest from Jerusalem.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnels

The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video Researchers Target Low-Cost Avatar Technology

Scientists at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies say 3-dimensional representations could revolutionize social media. Elizabeth Lee has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.

AppleAndroid