On 16 October, Uganda will join the world to celebrate World Food Day. But this comes at a time when there is a reduction in national agricultural production due to climate change, decline in soil fertility, pests and diseases.

In light of this, Naro in collaboration with International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and International Plant Biotechnology Outreach (IPBO) organised a course for scientists and biotechnology regulators from East and West Africa.

Titled “Banana research in Africa: Modern breeding techniques, regulatory and biosafety issues”, it focused on breeding techniques, collecting data for risk analysis, and how to communicate scientific results.

Due to its advances in banana breeding, Naro hosted the two week-course from September 19-30 at Kawanda.

Dr. Jerome Kubiriba, who leads Naro’s banana research programme, said the course was a big opportunity for African scientists to advance their research.

“Scientists have not communicated to the public effectively on GMOs and how breeding is done, so that they can trust the products, and have assurance of safety. This is what this aims to achieve,” he explained.

The programme started with an overview of banana diseases and conventional and biotechnology approaches to address them.

Dr Marc Heijde, one of the course instructors, said neither conventional methods nor genetic modification are a magic bullet but are essential in addressing production constraints.

It also covered regulatory and risk assessment principles relevant to Africa.

The training emphasised how to communicate research findings to a non-scientific audience or the public at large.

“Scientists tend to communicate to fellow scientists not the public even when they intend to,” noted Dr Heijde.

“They find it difficult to break down jargon into simpler language for the public expected to consume their research. The course was developed to equip them with these communication techniques.”

The participants also shared their experiences with conventional and genetic engineering.
Prof Rony Swennen, from University of Leuven, Belgium, explained. “Naro is doing a great job with banana breeding, and we want the team to learn from them. We are creating a network of scientists across Africa to share successes and build on it without necessarily starting a fresh research on the same.”

This will however be possible if there is common regulation on biotechnology across African countries.

Therefore, African Biosafety Network aims at harmonisation of these regulations.

Besides the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which seeks to protect biological diversity from potential risks posed by biotechnology, this will allow countries to build on findings from other countries, and just test them for safety and applicability.

The focus

In recent years, banana production has reduced due to pests and diseases, causing huge losses to farmers who rely on banana as a staple food and cash crop.

Naro has been carrying out breeding research on how to counteract these constraints. In 2010 and 2011, it released hybrids resistant to black sigatoka, a banana leaf disease, common around Lake Victoria and in the east and north.

Two GM varieties have been produced and are ready for release. One is resistant to banana bacterial wilt and another has high levels of Vitamin A.

“We also have a line that is resistant to nematodes, a worm that is almost wiping out bananas from western Uganda; and is almost ready for release,” confirms Dr. Jerome Kubiriba, the Naro banana research program leader.

However, the adoption rate of the hybrid varieties has been slow, and the GMOs are still illegal to be released to the farmers because there are no supporting laws.