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September 19, 2010

Gene-modified banana could cure deadly disease

by Busani Bafana

An innovation by researchers in Nigeria could be a cure for the devastating Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) - responsible for annual losses in excess of 500 million dollars of crop across East and Central Africa. But it has also fuelled debate on the genetic engineering of crops in Africa.

On Aug. 4 2010, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) based in Nigeria announced it had successfully engineered resistance of the African banana using genes from a green pepper.

Green pepper contains the plant ferredoxin-like amphipathic protein (Pflp) or hypersensitive response-assisting protein (Hrap) which are considered novel plant proteins that give crops enhanced resistance against deadly pathogens. A transformed banana, infused with Pflp or Hrap have shown strong resistance to BXW in the laboratory and screen houses, according to IITA.

'The Hrap and Pflp genes work by rapidly killing the cells that come into contact with the disease-spreading bacteria; essentially blocking it from spreading any further,' said Dr Leena Tripathi, a biotechnologist with IITA.'Furthermore, the mechanism - known as Hypersensitivity Response - also activates the defence of adjacent and even distant uninfected plants leading to a systematic acquired resistance.'

But anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) group, Friends of the Earth Nigeria said it was apparent that Africa has become the popular excuse for experimentation in modern biotechnology focusing on the so-called poor man's crops. Crops being targeted included cassava (a staple for over 20 million people in Africa and across the tropical world), cowpea, corn, cotton, banana and plantain.

'What Africa needs right now is a decisive stand to maintain seed as well as cultural diversities and defend staple crops,' said Mariann Bassey from Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

Bassey, coordinator of the organisation’s Food Sovereignty and Agrofuels Programme, believes the biotech industry targets people's staple crops even when there is no need for GM varieties. 'We believe this case in point (to genetically modify bananas in Uganda) is without any doubt a subtle means of colonising Uganda's local food,' she said.

Bassey said during a recent visit to Uganda a local farmer told her that they produced banana in such large quantities that they faced problems with storage. Promoters of GM crops, she said, must not be allowed to use Ugandans as Guinea pigs.

'Ecological agriculture has fed Mankind over thousands of years and improvements have been achieved through knowledgeable handling of seeds - with due respect to cultural, social, spiritual and climatic environments,' Bassey said. 'We do not want GMOs under any form or guise. Africa can feed itself.'

But Triphathi, the lead author of a paper on the research published in the 2010 Molecular Plant Pathology journal, said although it was still a while before the transgenic bananas found their way into farmer’s fields, the breakthrough was a significant step in the fight against the deadly banana disease.

The feat could be a leap in the fight against BXW. If unstopped, scientists say, BXW spells doom for banana production and threatens food security in areas where it is a staple food and a potential high-earning export crop.

Friends of the Earth Nigeria said seed diversity and sustainable farming were key to meeting the world's food needs. The organisation argued that GMOs were a direct threat to the environment and negated the notion of food sovereignty and the pursuit of food security.

Despite opposition to genetic engineering, a transgenic banana could be what Africa needs. Scientific research has found estimated total banana yield loss as a result of BXW infection at between 30 to 52 percent, meaning a huge reduction in the amount of bananas harvested at household level.

The disease, first identified 40 years ago, is widespread in key banana-growing areas such as Uganda, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania. Signs of the disease include wilting and yellowing of leaves, with plants producing yellowish bacterial ooze, premature ripening of the bunch and rotting of the fruit.

Researchers from IITA, in partnership with the National Agricultural Research Organisation and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, are now ready to evaluate these promising resistant lines under confined field trials after the National Biosafety Committee of Uganda recently approved the tests.

According to the IITA, presently there are no commercial chemicals, bio control agents or resistant varieties to help control the spread of BXW. Currently, the removal of the male bud, known as de-budding, has proved effective in preventing the occurrence of the disease as the male bud of the banana has been found to be the primary infection site. But de-budding is also labour intensive and some farmers are unable to cope.

Tripathi emphasised that even if a source of resistance was identified, developing a truly resistant banana would be extremely difficult given the sterile nature and long gestation period of the crop.

The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) has prioritised the role of research as promoting agricultural productivity. FARA executive director, Dr. Monty Jones, told participants at the 5th African Agricultural Science week held in Burkina Faso in July 2010 that there is no agricultural development without scientific research in Africa.

'I believe that research can do wonders for agriculture in Africa but no matter how outstanding the research products we cannot make an impact if we do not back that research with other packages such as infrastructural development,' Jones said.


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