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May 15, 2007

GM banana ready for trial in Uganda

Unlike neighbouring horticultural powerhouse Kenya, Uganda's recent agricultural progression has not significantly included large farming estates and their intensive model of farming. In recent years Uganda has sought to use an image of pristine soils unspoiled by massive agro-chemical application to its advantage, by for instance encouraging and touting its organic agriculture potential and development. The image of thousands of smallholder farmers producing for export, rather than a few large private companies, has also had some developmental and marketing advantages.

Some sectors of Uganda's agriculture are very keen to retain the country's unique agricultural model of largely chemical-free "natural" farming while improving yields. This desire has for example led to alarm at how the recent decision by the government to permit the resumption of DDT spraying inside dwellings as a measure against malaria will affect the country's growing agricultural exports.

However, there are others who see issues like the country's low fertiliser usage and reliance on smallholder-based production systems depending on largely traditional farming methodologies as a setback to the country's agricultural and economic prospects. They would urge the availing of any farming methodologies that have the prospects of improved yields and overall productivity for better food security, as well as for increased local and export commercial farming. Among other things, they urge improved access to agro-chemicals and the adoption of gene modification technology.

A sign of the inroads the intensive, biotechnology-based farming model is making in Uganda's evolving agricultural mix is the report in The East African of the permission granted to begin testing of a GM variety of bogoya , a strain of sweet banana. It is encoded with genes for resistance to the notorious bacterial wilt and Black Sigatoka fungal disease, both of which have caused huge losses in a country where bananas and plantains are important both as food and cash crops. The transgenic variety is expected to save up to 50 per cent of yields that are destroyed by pests and diseases.

The field tests will be conducted at the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), with results expected within 5-10 years. According to Geoffrey Arinaitwe, the Belgium-based Ugandan scientist who was involved in developing the GM banana, if the field trials succeed, Uganda will be the provider of the technology in Africa. He said the best transgenic line will be selected and multiplied and the technology later transferred to the matooke variety of highland-grown bananas, as well as to plantains.

Chido Makunike

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