By Elizabeth Lopatto
Depending on who you ask, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are the solution to malnutrition and hunger in the developing world, or a threat to food sovereignty. Take Uganda, for example. Ugandans eat, on average, a pound of bananas daily — more than any other population. But this crucial resource has been threatened by a bacterial wilt disease, which turns the banana plant’s sap into ooze, wilts the leaves, rots the fruit, and eventually destroys the crop.
Banana wilt was first seen in Uganda in 2001, and neither pesticides nor chemicals have stopped it. Farmers tried to control the wilt’s spread by torching infected plants and disinfecting tools, but the disease cut Ugandan banana yields by as much as half from 2001 to 2004. In the country’s central region, wilt hit 80 percent of plants, and sometimes knocked out whole fields, according to a report from The Guardian.
So scientists at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) — which receives funding from the Gates Foundation — created a genetically modified banana by inserting a green pepper gene into the banana’s genome. The new gene seems to trigger a process that kills infected cells and saves the plant. NARO wants to give the seeds away for free, but no regulation exists around GMOs in Uganda, and Uganda is obligated to take a cautionary approach to GMO technology, as signer of 2000’s Cartagena protocol. The Ugandan government is considering passing a law that would allow the introduction of GMOs, including the bacteria-resistant banana, but some food scientists worry it may open the door to corporate exploitation by multinational companies like Monsanto down the line.
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