GE East African Highland (EAH) Banana

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The GE East African Highland (EAH) Banana is a genetically engineered banana that is being created as part of USAID's Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP) II. Their goal is to create a banana that is resistant to Black Sigatoka, Fusarium Wilt, Bacterial Wilt, and nematodes for introduction to Uganda.[1] The technology of genetic engineering is controversial around the world, including within Uganda.

"Uganda which produces nine million tonnes of banana annually has for long been the world's second largest producer of banana. The crop is a staple food and cash crop for many communities especially in the central and western parts of the country."[2] The country suffers from declining yields, in part due to pests and disease, but also due to low soil fertility, since bananas are a heavy feeder on soil nutrients. Improving soil fertility will also help deal with the pest and disease problems, because healthy plants are less susceptible to such problems. Additionally, Black Sigatoka "mainly affects Cavendish" bananas in Uganda, "which are not as widely cultivated as other types of bananas."[3] Therefore, producers can reduce problems with the fungus by switching to other banana varieties with more resistance. (It's likely that the cavendish variety are for export, and exports account for less than 10 percent of bananas grown in Uganda.[4])

About the GE Banana

As of June 2012:[1]

"Transgenic banana plants expressing the antifungal chitinase RCG3 gene are being developed for efficacy against black Sigatoka.
"State‐of‐the-­art RNA interference (RNAi) technology is being used in transgenic bananas to selectively stop the pathogenic fungi from infecting banana plants with two diseases (black Sigatoka and fusarium wilt) and a pest (banana weevil).
"Two different genes from sweet pepper, pflp and hrap, are being assessed for their ability to confer resistance to bacterial wilt in transgenic bananas. A maize cystatin protein is being used to effectively control nematodes in transgenic banana roots that express the gene under laboratory conditions.
"Transgenic bananas with the RCG3 gene have been field tested for efficacy against black Sigatoka in Uganda and two promising lines have been selected for further study.
"NARO and Venganza Inc. are testing the RNAi technology for resistance to black Sigatoka and fusarium wilt.
"In an ongoing field trial with IITA, twelve promising lines have been identified with high levels of resistance to bacterial wilt. More events with the individual genes and stacked variations are being built and prepared for additional field testing.
"A field trial assessing the nematode resistance technology has been approved by the local regulatory authorities and will be planted soon."[1]

The GE banana was created by Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a Ugandan scientist based in Belgium.[5] Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) opened a new research laboratory in 2003 to work on the GE banana.[6] The nation imported GE bananas in 2007 and began field trials of GE bananas that year.[7][8] At the time, the project was expected to produce results in 5-10 years.[9]


In 2010, "Godber Tumushabe, chief executive officer of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment - a policy think-tank - said Uganda is unnecessarily rushing to develop GM crops before it builds the critical scientific and infrastructural capacity to ensure the products are safe."[10]

Two years before that, a Ugandan paper ran an op ed titled "Uganda; Why GMOs Will Not Perform Miracles."[11] It argued that "even if we had a GMO banana variety in Uganda today, for example, it would not scale up production, even in the next five years. This is because, agricultural extension services to sensitise farmers on better farming methods is badly wanting." It continued, saying:

"Look at the banana bacterial wilt problem, which the country is grappling with. While the policy makers were still demanding for billions of shillings to address the problem through research, ordinary farmers were already carrying out "survival" farming practices. It has indeed come to be understood and accepted in scientific circles that with good agronomical skills like tendering to the plantation, mulching, cutting off the male bud to avoid bees visiting reduced the wilt prevalence in Mukono and other areas. These formed part of the survival practices.
"Indeed, a GMO banana variety, as the researchers note would take the next about 10 years to materialise. The gene, which the scientists at Kawanda are researching, is only targeting one disease - the black sigatoka. This implies that other disease and climatic challenges, will still stay, requiring closer farmer-to extension officer interaction to better farming. Will the dwindling soil fertility, disappearing rangelands, pastures and bush fires also be addressed through genetic modifications? Certainly not."

It went on, saying:

"Look at the numerous league of new crops being indiscriminately introduced without clear policy planning like moringa, jatrophaa, neem tree, aloe vera and silk warm. (sic)
"A few profit driven multinatinationals often conspire to promote the crops, with a hope of a ready market. But in a few months, they disappear. While the immediate escape route for the so called technocrats is that Uganda is a liberalised market economy, my conviction is that the policy makers do not the right varieties introduction studies...
"Indeed GMOs cannot be our first line of defense. Poor policy development and execution is the bigger problem. Often farmers in northern Uganda returning from IDPs have complained that the seeds do not germinate. Indeed I also agree with them that there is a problem, which GMO seeds, even if we had them now would not fix."

Bananas in Uganda

Bananas are a staple food of 16 million people in central and western Uganda, "providing as much as a quarter of a person's daily intake of carbohydrates. The average adult gets through more than one kilogram of bananas every day, giving Uganda the highest per capita consumption rate of any country."[12] As of 2007, the nation produced over 11 million tonnes per year, more than 10 percent of the world's total, making it the second largest producing nation after India.

Green savory bananas used for cooking are known locally as "matooke" (which simply means "food," showing how important the banana is in the diet) and elsewhere as the East African highland banana. Matooke might be steamed, boiled, fried, roasted, mashed, and stewed. Another type of banana, called kayinga, is grown for juice. The juice might be consumed directly or fermented to make beer and/or distilled to make a spirit called waragi. Sweet bananas like those eaten in the North America and Europe are also grown in Uganda.[12]

Uganda is home to over 100 banana varieties, of which 84 are endemic to the region. The fruit isn't the only important part of the plant for Ugandans. "The leaves are traditionally used to steam vegetables or as basins to hold water; dried--known as essanja--they are made into mats, among other things, while the fibres of the pseudostem are used to make rope, baskets and cloth."[12] Bananas are also deeply ingrained in the culture, playing a role in marriages, funerals, and other important events.

In the 1970's, the fabric of Ugandan society changed with the expulsion of the nation's Asians (Indians) in 1972 by Idi Amin. Until then, Indians - who ate rice as a staple - dominated the cities and Africans lived in rural areas. "As Ugandans moved into urban areas, the commercial banana industry grew to supply them with matooke. Although this provided a significant boost to the economy, it also opened the door to diseases such as black sigatoka and pests such as the banana weevil." This is because when bananas are consumed at home, their peels are left to rot under the banana trees, fertilizing the soil. But then the bananas - and their peels - went to the cities. "'Today, the peel from commercially grown bananas is no longer returned to the farms, and as most farmers don't regularly apply any other kind of fertiliser, the soil quality has declined. This has left the plants less able to withstand attack from these pathogens.'"[12]

Emergence of Banana Xanthomonus Wilt (BXW)

Banana Xanthomonus Wilt (BXW) appeared in Uganda in 2001. Unlike Black Sigatoka and the Banana Weevil, which reduce yields over a number of years, BXW "destroys all of the fruit on up to 90 per cent of plants and can do so within a matter of weeks."[12] The disease was initially confined to two districts of Uganda, but began to spread in 2003. "In a desperate attempt to control it, the Ministry of Agriculture sent out extension workers to destroy infected plantations and set up quarantine zones. But the disease evaded their best efforts. By October the next year, it had reached 12 districts and there were reports of outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Tanzania."[12] By May 2005, it had reached 31 of Uganda's 56 districts.

According to an account from 2007:[12]

"When I heard last year that BXW had finally reached the southwest,I feared the worst. But arriving in Kampala in September, I was surprised to find that it appeared to be business as usual.
"At the INIBAP headquarters, Karamura told me that scientists at the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) had made an important discovery. "We realised that bees played an important part in propagating the bacterium as they travelled from plant to plant collecting nectar from the male flower bud," he says. "This helped to explain why the disease was so rife in central areas, where the sugary kayinja predominated."
"In the southwest, however, the disease caused less damage, partly because the matooke varieties grown there contain less sugar, and partly because it's common practice to remove the male bud at an early stage of development because it improves the size of the bunch. Here, the bacterium was spread when farmers and traders used infected tools to cut their plants.
"BXW has now been found in 35 districts. But in the southwest, it's pretty much under control...
"However, central districts continue to be a problem. Even though agricultural researchers have shown that burying infected plants and removing the male flower buds of healthy plants can eradicate the bacterium from a plantation, getting the message across is proving a challenge. "The problem is socioeconomic," says Karamura. "Traditionally,farmers have been able to leave kayinja to grow almost wild, with no kind of management. So they have little time to implement the necessary measures."
"At present, INIBAP and scientists at KARI are developing farmer field schools through which they can teach farmers about the benefits of investing more time in proper management. "We have a farm in Luwero [central Uganda] that is almost free of disease because the farmer there does everything we tell him," says Karamura. "He has benefitted a lot because he is the only one in his area who is now selling waragi and his price has increased almost 200 per cent. We hope that by using him as an example, we can encourage other farmers to adopt similar practices."
"However, better management won't be enough in the long term, says Karamura. "Some farms are owned by children whose parents have died or by widows or absentee farmers who won't take the necessary measures. These will remain as pockets from which the disease will continue to spread. If we want to eradicate this disease, we may have to look at developing new varieties of bananas that are resistant to BXW."

Non-GMO Farming Practices To Solve Banana Problems

A Ugandan newspaper advised farmers how to improve banana production without GMOs.[13] Some simple strategies can help deal with the same problems the GE banana is intended to address.

For banana weevils, farmers are advised to put manure at the base of banana plants. "After cultivation, the pseudostem should be completely cut down and the sheath leaves disengaged before they are arranged in the banana plantation for easy drying."

For nematodes, "replenishing soil fertility through mulching with organic waste could suppress nematode damage by stimulating and improving root growth. Alternatively, before planting the banana suckers, they should be treated in water for between 24 and 48 hours. This will suffocate the nematodes and weevils and ensure that a farmer plants disease- and pest-free suckers."

For Banana Wilt Disease, immediately cut the affected plant and bury it in a hole.

"Black Sigatoka, also known as black leaf streak, is a fungal banana disease that starts as small yellow dots on the underside of the banana leaf which eventually become black and leads to drying of the leaf. The disease the spreads quickly to other leaves... to reduce the effect of Black Sigatoka, all affected leaves must be removed from the plant to reduce fungal spread and impact. Then the cut leaves should be placed upside down to further reduce spread of fungi spores by wind."

However, "apart from pests and diseases,... banana yields are declining due to reduced soil fertility, since banana are heavy feeders and require fertile soils in order to flourish... many farmers have grown bananas on the same piece of land for a long time without replenishing the soil fertility of their lands, thus leading to poor yields. Many farmers don't mulch their soil, apply organic manure or control soil erosion, which would have helped the soil to maintain its fertility." Simple techniques like mulching, applying manure, and pruning will help with banana productivity as well as diseases.

Organizations Involved in GE Banana Development

The following organizations are partnering in the development of the GE banana:[1]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 The Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSPII) Product Summaries, June 2012.
  2. Fred Muzaale, "Proper Farming Practices Will Check Low Yields," The Monitor (Kampala), June 29, 2011.
  3. East Africa; Modified Banana Resistant to Fungus Shows Promise, Africa News, April 20, 2011.
  4. "East Africa; Banana Blight Puts Livelihoods at Risk," Africa News, June 17, 2009.
  5. Africa News, "Uganda; Country to Introduce Genetically Engineered Banana," February 20, 2007.
  6. Africa News, "Africa; Continent Warms Up to Biotechnology," November 14, 2007.
  7. Africa News, "Uganda; Nation Starts 'Historic' Trials On GM Staple Crops," October 5, 2010.
  8. "Uganda last week imported transgenic sweet banana plants resistant to pests and disease from Belgium for field trials; INTERNATIONAL BRIEFS," Food Chemical News, SECTION: Pg. 22(1) Vol. 49 No. 15 ISSN: 0015-6337, May 28, 2007.
  9. Africa News, "Uganda; Researchers Put GM Sweet Banana on Trial in Uganda This Month," May 15, 2007.
  10. Africa News, "Uganda; Nation Starts 'Historic' Trials On GM Staple Crops," October 5, 2010.
  11. Africa News, "Uganda; Why GMOs Will Not Perform Miracles," October 13, 2008.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 Charlie Furniss, "Battling the banana plague: in Uganda, the average adult gets through a kilo of bananas a day--providing as much as a quarter of their daily carbohydrate intake. So when a virulent disease started working its way through the country's banana plantations, the nation held its breath," Geographical, Pg. 60(5) Vol. 79 No. 2 ISSN: 0016-741X, February 1, 2007.
  13. Fred Muzaale, "Proper Farming Practices Will Check Low Yields," The Monitor (Kampala), June 29, 2011.

External resources

External articles

  • David Kazungu, "Ugandan Farmers reject genetically modified crops," Daily Monitor, June 22, 2011.
  • Natasha Maguder, "Genetic modification used to fight Uganda's banana blight," CNN, March 23, 2011.
  • Emma Hockridge, "Uganda's disease-hit banana crops will not be saved by GM science," The Guardian, March 15, 2011.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; Nation Starts 'Historic' Trials On GM Staple Crops," October 5, 2010.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; Kawanda Searches for Resistant Matooke Variety," April 29, 2009.
  • Africa News, "Africa; Farmers Set to Go Bananas," October 26, 2008.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; Why GMOs Will Not Perform Miracles," October 13, 2008.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; Leaf Disease Slows Progress On Improved Banana Variety," June 17, 2008.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; Improving the Banana Species," March 18, 2008.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; GMO Cotton Trials Approved," January 22, 2008.
  • Africa News, "Africa; Continent Warms Up to Biotechnology," November 14, 2007.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; GMOs Are Key to Commercial Agriculture," December 5, 2006.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; Country 'Needs Biotech Law' to Save Banana Sector," October 11, 2006.
  • Andrew Leonard, "A plague on African bananas,", October 11, 2006.
  • Africa News, "Uganda; Mixed Response to Country's Biotech Progress," September 29, 2006.
  • Craig Canine, "Building a better banana: it is the world's No. 1 fruit, with millions of people dependent on it to stay alive. Now diseases threaten many varieties, prompting a search for new hybrids of "the smile of nature"." Smithsonian, Pg. 96(9) Vol. 36 No. 7 ISSN: 0037-7333, October 1, 2005.