Uganda faces heavy losses without GMO banana, economist warns

By Christopher Bendana

November 25, 2019

A leading Ugandan economist is warning of heavy financial losses among banana farmers if they don’t soon adopt a genetically modified (GM) variety that can resist the devastating bacterial wilt disease.

Farmers growing one hectare of GM bananas would likely earn an extra US$300 per year, while those who do not adopt the improved varieties will lose some US$460 annually to the banana bacterial wilt (BBW), according to Dr.  Enoch Kikulwe of Bioversity International.

For the country as a whole, the impact of adopting the GM banana in 2022 would be tremendous, generating benefits worth US$1 billion in the first six years, he added. The economic benefits assume an adoption rate of between 34 and 73 percent by the nation’s farmers.

Kikulwe shared his findings while presenting the paper “The Economic Potential of transgenic crops in Uganda: the case of bananas and cassava” during the recent World Science Day at Makerere University in Kampala.

Bacterial wilt is one of the most lethal banana diseases and nearly wiped out the country’s highly-prized East Africa Highland varieties. Although the infection rate has dropped, scientists warn of a high possibility of resurgence as was seen in the recent past when famers become complacent in enforcing management options.

Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and its partners are currently using genetic engineering to breed disease-resistance banana varieties in a bid to protect the popular food.

Bacterial wilt could destroy up to 90 percent of all bananas in Uganda if it’s not controlled, according to NARO. Bananas are the most widely consumed food in Uganda, with each person eating about 485 pounds per year, according to the National Banana Program (NBP). Any disruption in production would have a serious knockdown impact on food security by income.

Hajati Zubeda Kaganda, who runs a banana farming business in Mbarara district, knows well the effect of BBW. She saw the family’s plantation wiped out in the early 2000s by the disease, which peaked in 2011.

“We had reached the extent of going hungry,” she said.

Kaganda has since increased her banana production to 300 bunches a month, but the fields are again being affected by bacterial wilt. Of the 300 bunches, she eats about 30 and sells the rest at about US$5 per bunch.  One bunch can feed a family of eight for lunch and supper.

Dr.  Priver Namanya Bwesigye, a senior research scientist at the NBP, said Uganda needs to adopt  BBW-resistant GM varieties if banana farming is to be economically viable.

“You want to give farmers a sustainable method that makes economic sense,” she said.

Though Uganda’s Parliament passed a biosafety bill that would allow farmers to grow GM crops, the measure was stalled by President Yoweri Museveni. It currently remains in legislative limbo, preventing farmers from accessing the improved crops.

Kikulwe said it is important to effectively communicate with farmers and consumers about the need to adopt the technology in order for the benefits to be realized.

“We generate this science-based information to inform the policy makers that if regulatory decisions delay the introduction of the new banana variety, this is the loss,” he advised the scientists in attendance. “You have to communicate the science.”

Kikulwe further advised that GM technology is not a silver bullet for increasing agricultural productivity. Farmers will still need to engage in good agronomical practices, such as proper pruning, soil and water management and weeding, among others, he noted.

The results of Kikulwe’s paper are derived from an ex-ante economic impact study conducted in collaboration with the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) under the Biotechnology and Biosafety Rapid Assessment Project (BioRAPP).

Data used in the impact study was collected from a highly qualified and respected team of local experts. Multiple collaborators from several institutions also participated, collecting secondary data about production, prices, international trade and consumption and adoption trends.

Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, the minister for Science, Technology, and Innovation, opened the World Science Day symposium by asking the scientists and business leaders to take Uganda’s bananas to the international market.

“I want to see the banana on shelves in European and American capitals,” he said.

Uganda is second only to India in the production of banana but leads the world in its consumption of the nutritious, starchy fruit.

Tumwesigye wondered why people in Uganda are still bothered by GM technology when the developed world is already talking of more advanced techniques, like gene-editing.