Banana farmers and consumers in Uganda should expect to experience the first local genetically modified varieties of bananas in three years time, according to scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organisation. 

Dr Andrew Kiggundu (in tie) explaining biotechnology on banana inside a green house
Dr Andrew Kiggundu (in tie) explaining biotechnology on banana inside a green house

Presently being grown on a confined trial, the genetically modified bananas are expected to have vitamin A and Iron nutrients, which are lacking in the indigenous banana species. The genetically modified variety is also expected to resist diseases and pests such as bacterial wilt, weevils and nematodes.

Dr Andrew Kiggundu, a Senior Scientist at National Agricultural Research Laboratory, Kawanda explained that the trial, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began in 2009. He said the trial involves developing genes that are resistant to bacterial wilt, weevils and nematodes that are largely the biggest challenge for banana production in the country.

In addition, he said they have been able to add vitamin A and Iron to the banana genes being developed meaning that banana farmers would be able to have crops that are not only resistant to the pest and diseases but also possessing nutrients that have been lacking in crop.

The development of a banana species with vitamin A is expected to improve on the health of population that rely on the crop as its staple food. Dr Friva Nakamya, a scientist at the research center explained that they opted to prioritise banana after gathering information, which showed the population that largely rely on banana as a staple food were malnourished especially the children.

There has been speculation that genetically modified foods were already being grown by farmers in the country but the scientists have dismissed the claim saying so far they are only aware about their trials.

Kiggundu added that the facility where the trial is taking place has been secured to ensure control of the materials. He also explained that the trial is expected to benefit from the Biotechnology and Bio safety Bill presently before parliament.

Once approved and eventually released to the farmers, the genetically modified variety is expected to boost the level of banana production. President Yoweri Museveni mentioned in a statement on Friday that government loses 500 billion shillings per year to banana wilt saying that the use of biotechnology to improve the banana variety would help address the problem.

Uganda expects to join neighbours Kenya and Tanzania that are already growing genetically modified crops after providing legislation to regulate their use.

Hamson Obua, the chairperson Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology says that they expect to debate the Bio safety and Biotechnology bill in parliament before December.

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