A plague on African bananas

To GM or not to GM: The case of Ugandan banana wilt

Published October 11, 2006 11:30PM (EDT)

In August 2001, a previously unknown strain of "banana wilt" began spreading in the Ugandan village of Bulyanti. The effects were disastrous. The outer leaves would begin to yellow and wilt, while secreting bacterial ooze. The banana bunch would prematurely ripen. Eventually the entire plant would die. Unlike other diseases that affect bananas, this one did not discriminate among the 90-plus varieties that grow in the East African highlands. Nearly all have proved vulnerable.

Since then, the banana wilt plague has spread rapidly throughout central Uganda, leaving in its wake considerable dislocation. Per capita consumption of bananas in Uganda is the highest in the world, around one kilogram per person per day. Uganda is the second largest producer of bananas in the world, after India, and nearly all of that production is for domestic use. Some banana strains are used for cooking, others for juice or alcohol (there is banana beer, wine and gin). Banana fibers are used for handcrafts and making rope.

One way to deal with the epidemic could be to create genetically engineered bananas that are resistant to banana wilt. There are a number of potential avenues for such genetic modifications, and scientists have already engineered one variety that is resistant to another deadly banana foe, black sigatoka. But like many other African nations, Uganda currently does not allow the planting or propagation of any genetically modified crops.

On Tuesday, reports SciDev.Net, Opolot Okasai, Uganda's commissioner for crop production and marketing, let loose with some frustration at this state of affairs, complaining that the lack of comprehensive biosafety laws in Uganda was holding back the nation's ability to confront the banana wilt problem. Okasai said that banana wilt could cost Uganda $6 billion to $8 billion in the next five to 10 years.

There are reasons for considering bananas to be good prospects for genetic engineering. Crossbreeding is difficult and slow, and in the current dire situation, time is of the essence. Bananas propagate by cloning themselves via suckers -- so there is little worry about gene flow via pollen contamination, as there is with, for example, genetically modified corn. Furthermore, this is a clear case of dramatic need. This isn't about a Monsanto or Syngenta looking for new markets -- this is about preserving a mainstay of daily Ugandan life. And Uganda has already started down the path of developing the biotechnological resources necessary to start tinkering with the banana genome.

Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, supports the introduction of GM crops to Uganda. But one of the reasons why Uganda has yet to put in place a fully realized set of biotechnology regulations and biosafety rules is precisely because of the pressure exerted by, you guessed it, Monsanto. The giant U.S. biotechnology company has long been pushing for the opportunity to sell its genetically modified cotton and corn strains in Uganda. But Ugandan cotton farmers are worried that the introduction of genetically modified cotton could hurt exports to the European Union, where consumers are virulently anti-GM.

Uganda's GM banana dilemma offers a dramatic illustration of the complexities that emerge when you dig down deep into the highly charged debate over GM crops and Africa. It's not hard to understand why many non-governmental organizations and civil society groups are strongly opposed to the introduction into Africa of genetically modified cash crops that are being pushed by for-profit Western corporations. The green revolution hasn't worked yet for Africa, and there's little assurance that Monsanto really has the best interests of Africans at heart. But do the same objections hold for Ugandan scientists attempting to fight diseases that afflict Ugandan bananas? Is it possible to pick and choose? To be for transgenic bananas but against transgenic cotton? Or does giving in on one front mean conceding the battle everywhere?

Questions like these should obviously be up to Ugandans to answer. But when U.S. government institutions like USAID are working hand in hand with U.S. biotech companies, and European markets open and close depending on whether genes from one organism have been combined with another, it's easy to see why it might be hard figuring out a path forward. Meanwhile, in the East African highlands, bananas are dying.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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