Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Collapse of Banana Republic?

Most countries would resent being called a banana republic. Ugandans take great pride at this label. A typical adult here eats at least three times his or her body weight in bananas each year. Different varieties are steamed, boiled, roasted, turned into gin and beer, or simply peeled and eaten raw. In Uganda it is banana for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 365 days a year. And the craving won’t go away.

But this craving is under threat. In recent years a devastating bacterial disease has swept across Uganda and, to a lesser extent, neighboring countries, causing annual banana crop losses to the region of more than $500m (£310m). The rapid spread of banana Xanthomonas wilt or known simply as BXW, which destroys the entire plant and contaminates the soil, has put at risk livelihoods of millions of families who depend on banana for staple food and income.

With no resistant varieties or chemical cures available, growers have been forced to destroy large banana crops or entire plantations. For smaller farmers the damage has been so severe, with families giving up banana production.
But scientists from Uganda’s National Banana Research Program working in collaboration with International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) are hard at work building a better banana. This has involved adding to the fruit a sweet pepper gene, which produces a protein that kills cells infected by disease-spreading bacteria. This gene has been successfully transplanted into other vegetables, but never before in a banana.

Laboratory tests on the genetically modified bananas is promising, with six out of eight strains proving 100% resistant to BXW. Field tests have now started.

Results from the trials, expected later this year, could have a strong bearing on the country's food security and livelihood for a majority of households and more importantly, on agriculture and GM policy. GM crops are still banned in Uganda and the East African Community (EAC) region. In Uganda, the scientists had to obtain special permission.

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