Uganda GMO banana research progresses despite legal uncertainty

By Lominda Afedraru

February 28, 2019

The Ugandan researchers who have been working since 2005 to breed more nutritious bananas say their progress won’t be hindered by a strict liability clause in the nation’s latest biosafety bill.

The scientists are using genetic engineering to develop bananas rich in such nutrients as vitamin A, iron, zinc and folic acid. The Ugandan Parliament recently passed a bill that regulates the process for commercializing such crops. Though it has yet to be signed into law by the president, it includes a controversial clause that holds scientists accountable in case of any complaint associated to their research, regardless of whether the particular anomaly was directly caused by the scientist.

“The current Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act has a specific clause which is strict on scientists, but this will not stop us from releasing GMO products to farmers,” said Dr. Jerome Kubiriba, head of the banana research program at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL).

Dr. Stephen Buah, program leader for the fortified banana research at NARL, took a similar view, saying scientists have the mandate to develop agricultural products, be they hybrid or GMO (genetically modified). These products will not be imposed on farmers, but they will choose to embrace them, he said.

As politicians labor over the law, scientists are progressing with their research. Buah said his team has already secured the required permit from National Biosafety Committee at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology to conduct field trials of the GMO pro-vitamin A banana in different locations and are reaching out to farmers who will be involved in the trial exercise. The planting exercise will be conducted in six months, and scientists hope to release the vitamin A-fortified “golden banana” to farmers by 2021.

Dr. Stephen Buah at a field trial of vitamin A-fortified bananas. Photo Lominda Afedraru

Scientists began using the tools of biotechnology in 2005 to breed bananas fortified with vitamin A. Their goal was to help rural families suffering from a deficiency of the nutrient, which is essential for proper growth, maintenance of the immune system and good vision, Bua explained.

They chose to improve the nutrient value of banana because it such an important economic, cultural and staple food crop in Uganda. The crop cultivation is deeply embedded in the culture of people who grow bananas, which are raised in the Lake Victoria, Southern, Western and Northern regions, including West Nile.

The crop is grown both on a small scale by farmers for food and the surplus is sold in Uganda’s open markets. Other commercial growers export it in the regional market within East Africa. Uganda produces about 9 million tons of bananas annually, making it the world’s second largest producer after India, according to a recent report in Fortune of Africa.

The evaluation process in the upcoming field trial will include assessing the yield potential, the size of the banana fingers and comparing the vitamin, carbohydrate, potassium, zinc and iron content in the GMO banana against the conventional breeds. They will also evaluate the agronomic practices that farmers will have to adopt to successfully grow the GMO varieties.

Researchers are working with two local cultivars, Nakitembe and M9, which were bred using conventional methods to resist black sigatoka disease and nematodes and tolerate banana bacterial wilt. The team accessed genes with beta–carotene from non-edible banana varieties from Southeast Asia and introduced them into the local cultivars. Scientists have already increased the vitamin A content in those varieties from 5 micrograms to 20 micrograms, with the goal of increasing it to a maximum 80 micrograms.

A 2018 USAID report highlighting Uganda’s nutrition profile found that malnutrition arises in children as a result of consuming food lacking vitamin A and iron. Some 2.2 million children under age 5 suffer from stunting due to limited food and healthcare. World Bank statistics found that 38 percent of Ugandan children under the age of five are stunted, 16 percent are under weight and 6 percent are wasted, while 14 percent of infants are born with a low birth weight. This is partly due to insufficient vitamin A and iron. Additionally, 64 percent of preschool-aged children and 41 percent of pregnant women are anemic.

The fortified bananas are expected to help improve the health of rural families by making it easy to access nutrients in a food they eat daily and often grow themselves.