Tackling Uganda’s Banana Crisis

Interview with Mr. Erostus Nsubuga, founder and chairman of Agro-Genetic Technologies, Inc. (AGT)

The banana is a very important part of the Ugandan diet with 70 percent of the population eating the fruit every day. However, as Banana Bacterial Wilt is devastating banana crops across the country, eradicating the disease has become a major focus for Uganda’s government, scientists and industry. We spoke with Mr. Nsubuga to learn how Uganda is dealing with this challenge, and the roles of science and technology in feeding Africa’s growing population.

The banana is a major staple in Uganda but it is under threat. Can you tell us the challenges you are facing and what is happening to address this issue?

Seventy percent of Ugandans eat banana every day. In the face of Banana Bacterial Wilt, which has devastated our banana crops, scientists in Uganda have developed a genetically modified species that is resistant to this threat. However, at the moment, we have a regulatory problem. We don’t have a bill in place to be able to commercialize it.

We have been pushing hard to the extent that the draft bill has already been discussed on the floor of Parliament, but then it wasn’t passed because of interference from foreign NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). One NGO, in particular, has spent a lot of time and money falsely publicizing that genetically modified crops are causing increased incidences of cancer and impotence in the country, despite the fact that biotech crops aren’t even commercially available in Uganda.

This is incredibly irresponsible, and has resulted in holding up the commercialization of a truly lifesaving technology.

How do you feel about the debate around biotech crops?

Debate is important. I am the chairman of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, which is a group of scientists working on GMOs in Uganda, and we have sat at the table with anti-GMO activists to discuss the facts many times. And we are happy to have constructive conversations. What I tell people most of the time is “I’m an African. I’m Ugandan. The conditions in the U.S. are so different as far as food is concerned than in Africa. So if you are going to discuss GMOs and food on the table for Ugandans, don’t give me examples in the U.S. In the U.S. and Europe, you are discussing choice. In Uganda, people are dying. So lets not compare the two.”

But, having said that, even a dying man has a right to know what he’s eating and the right to debate, to have a say on what is going to be on the plate. So as long as the conversation is based on facts, we feel strongly that it is an important conversation to facilitate. What is damaging and irresponsible are the NGOs that spread fears that are not based in fact. In Uganda’s case, it has resulted in delaying important legislation that can put more food on people’s plates.

Isn’t the biotech banana being developed locally and with the support of the Ugandan government?

Yes. Getting these bananas commercialized is very much in the public interest. In fact, 50 percent of the work done on biotech bananas in Uganda has been government funded. It was our President who actually funded and launched the molecular biology laboratory at the banana research center in Kawanda. But the problem is misinformation. As a signatory of the Cartagena Protocol, Uganda we need to have public input before we commercialize the biotech banana. Because of this misinformation, it is hard to progress the conversation. We are working hard to use facts to dispel the fears, so we can move forward.

If we look at the larger picture, how can science and industry help in a country like Uganda, which faces population growth, constrained resources, and climate change?

Biotechnology is not the only solution to our challenges — but it can solve many of our problems. Water is one example. Climate change is affecting Africa dis-proportionally, it seems. Drought is now even reaching countries like Uganda; so drought-resistant crops will be useful all over Africa. Climate change is also introducing new types of diseases, like Banana Bacterial Wilt and others, so biotechnology can help combat this as well. So, while biotech is not the only solution it can be revolutionary in many areas.

What do you see coming in Uganda, and globally, in terms of technologies for farming over the next 5–10 years?

In Uganda, the revolution in farming will be led by GMOs, especially in major cash and food crops. As far as Ugandan scientists are concerned, we don’t have a choice, because conventional breeding has failed to produce strong crop varieties over the last 10 years. Major crops, like banana and coffee, are still suffering a lot of problems and yields have been reduced by 50 percent. Once we are allowed to commercialize, biotechnology will be the fuel for this revolution. I think it is going to be a breakthrough for African agriculture.