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Saving the Banana

As the banana falls to a devastating fungus, Ugandan scientists launch tests on genetically modified varieties to save a food staple of 500 million people.

In 2003, I met Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a Ugandan plant geneticist training at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven–one of the early research centers developing genetically modified (GM) crops. Regardless of what you think about GM food, Arinaitwe had a compelling story: without genetic modification, the main food source of his country and many others in the tropics would die off, impacting the diet of 10 million Ugandans and hundreds of millions more poor people from Brazil to Indonesia.

Now Arinaitwe is back in Kampala, where he is poised to test the first modified bananas to be planted in Ugandan soil. A researcher at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute„ this shy scientist with a gentle voice and slight build is waiting for GM plants to arrive from Leuven; they are expected within the month.

In 2003, I wrote a story for Seed magazine about the plight of the edible banana. Since it’s seedless and therefore sterile, all bananas come from mutant plants discovered some 8,000 years ago, probably in Papua New Guinea. They have been grafted, or cloned, ever since, and developed into dozens of varieties, colors, and sizes. Bananas are ideal for the developing world because they are compact, easy to grow and transport, and highly nutritious. In these parts of the world, they are eaten raw and cooked and used to make beverages. In Uganda, they are so important that the word for banana, matooke, also means “food.”

Unfortunately, with an 8,000-year-old genome, the edible banana hasn’t evolved to keep up with new pests. These include the black sigatoka, a leaf-destroying fungus, which has devastated vast acres of bananas. It cripples plants and reduces output by 50 percent. Close to half the banana crop in Uganda has been afflicted as this fungus spreads around the world.

Scientists at Leuven have been working to combat the problem. Led by Rony Swennen, a team discovered that inserting a gene from rice provides significant protection for the banana with apparently no danger to either humans or the environment. Because the banana is sterile, it can’t get loose in the environment, nor is there a seed allowing Monsanto or other corporations to sell it. In fact, Swennen and banana organizations around the world are prepared to provide the initial plants to farmers at a cost. Once a farmer has the plant, he or she can graft more.

Another advantage, according to Swennen and Arinaitwe, is that the GM banana greatly reduces the need to use pesticides that fend off the black sigatoka in export crops going to markets in the West. Most Ugandan farmers growing bananas for local consumption can’t afford expensive pesticides, but on huge plantations in Africa and Latin America, growers use some of the highest levels of chemicals sprayed in the world to fend off fungi and other pests. This has led to reports of higher than normal instances of leukemia and sterility in growers.

By the way, organic bananas sold in the West are grown without pesticides. They are raised either in areas unaffected by the black sigatoka or are harvested out of the reduced yields of afflicted plants, further reducing the amount of fruit available to locals.

None of this convinces opponents of GM foods, who responded to my Seed article with astonishing vitriol and even some personal attacks. I’ll leave it to readers to decide if inserting a rice gene into a cloned banana is repugnant and undesirable.

Almost certainly, though, critics are correct that acceptance of the modified banana may make other forms of GM foods more palatable, so to speak, particularly in much of Africa, which has largely opposed GM crops. As modified corn, cotton, and other crops become more prevalent in the West and elsewhere, it’s obvious that GM creep has already begun.

As for safety, the scientists at Leuven say that their GM bananas are harmless. Now Arinaitwe will test them in Uganda to see if he and the Ugandan government agree. Hurdles remain before a rice-banana hybrid is approved and accepted. Protests are also expected, although in the end the withering, decimated crops that cover hill after hill in this country, which has an entire culture built on the banana, may make this banana update stick. We’ll see.

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