The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, also known as IITA, recently announced that it has made a “significant step” towards engineering resistance to bacterial wilt in bananas.
Scientists transferred genes from green peppers into bananas. The transformed bananas have shown strong resistance to bacterial wilt in the laboratory and in screenhouses.
Dr. Leena Tripathi, a biotechnologist with IITA, warns that while this is a breakthrough in the fight against bacterial wilt, there is still a long way to go before farmers can plant the transgenic bananas.
Bacterial wilt was first reported in Uganda in 2001, then spread to East and Central Africa. The disease causes the plant to wither and rot. In North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, banana production has dropped by 90%, according to Action Against Hunger, an international aid organization. Millions of farmers in the Great Lakes region depend on bananas as their staple food and as a significant part of their livelihoods. Since 2001, scientists have been trying to find a variety of banana which is resistant to wilt.
The Ugandan National Biosafety Committee has granted approval for field trials of the transformed banana in Uganda. Scientists from IITA, the National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda, and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation will soon begin confined field trials.
There is, however, some opposition to the development and use of such genetically modified crops. Friends of the Earth Nigeria takes a strong stance against genetically modified organisms in Africa. Mariann Bassey coordinates the organization’s Food Sovereignty and Agrofuels program. She says that ecological agriculture has fed mankind for thousands of years, and improvements have been achieved through knowledgeable handling of seeds. The organization believes that seed diversity and sustainable farming are key to meeting food needs. They maintain that genetically modified organisms are a direct threat to the environment and run contrary to the goal of African food sovereignty. Ms. Bassey states, “We do not want GMOs under any form or guise. Africa can feed itself.”
Dr. Tripathi says that there are presently no commercial chemicals, biocontrol agents, or resistant varieties that could control the spread of wilt. She emphasizes that developing a resistant banana through conventional breeding would be extremely difficult. It would take years, even decades, given the sterile nature and long gestation period of the crop.
Farmers can take steps themselves to help control the spread of bacterial wilt. They can sterilize their tools with bleach or fire. They can also remove the male bud, known as de-budding. Farmers should uproot and destroy infected plants and their suckers. Any new infections should be reported. These practices have also been found effective in preventing the disease.