Heated debate in Uganda over super bananas

March 18, 2015 by Amy Fallon
With his half-acre banana plantation, Charles Semakula can put his family's favourite food on the table every day

With his half-acre banana plantation, Charles Semakula can put his family's favourite food on the table every day.

Green cooking bananas, or matooke, are a feature of almost every main course for 38-year-old Semakula, his wife and four children, while sweet yellow ones make for pudding.

Matooke is a national staple in Uganda, and many say a meal isn't a meal without it.

"When I spend a week without eating matooke, I don't feel good," said Semakula, who lives and farms 16 kilometres (10 miles) outside the capital Kampala. "It's rare not to find it regardless of what part of the country you're in."

But in recent years a deadly bacterial disease, known as "banana wilt", has had a devastating impact, driving some farmers to abandon their beloved crop altogether. It has also sparked a Ugandan version of the global row over genetically modified (GMO) foods.

Across the world, heated debate surrounds the development and use of new foods whose DNA has been manipulated to incorporate traits not found naturally.

Backers claim that engineered strains offer a future of plentiful crops, resistant to drought and disease.

Their opponents insist that the long-term health risks and environmental impacts are not known, and warn that global corporations behind GMO foods exercise undue influence over governments and farmers.

With his banana crop under threat, Semakula is among those who want Uganda's parliament to pass a contentious bill permitting the use of GMO crops in the hope it will deliver disease-resistant bananas.

Supporters of the GMO bill argue that the crops are both safe and vital for the health of Ugandans.

Green cooking bananas, or matooke, are a feature of almost every main course for Charles Semakula, his wife and four children, while sweet yellow ones make for pudding
"We are interested in solving a problem," said Professor Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, director of research at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories.

Uganda has been conducting trials of disease-resistant GMO since 2007. In 2010 scientists expanded the range of tests to include rice, maize, cassava and sweet potatoes.

But for Semakula, it is all about the banana, while his faith in the government is total. "Vaccines and drugs come into the country. I don't need to know where they came from, how they process them. Government approves and I benefit. My confidence is in the government," he said.

'A neo-colonial conspiracy'

Others however are sceptical.

"It's a neo-colonial conspiracy to make the developing world more dependent on food and seeds from rich governments and corporations," said Edie Mukiibi, 28, who grows 12 different varieties of banana on his farm in Mukono, in central Uganda.

Charles Semakula wants Uganda's parliament to pass a contentious bill permitting the use of GMO crops in the hope it will deliver disease-resistant bananas

Opponents of GMOs argue that they threaten the sustainability of farming in Africa with accompanying restrictions that remove farmers' right to choose their own crops and seeds.

"Real nutrition is when you have diversity of crops in your garden to choose from, not having only one crop everywhere," said Mukiibi, who is also a vice-president of the Ugandan branch of the global organisation Slow Food International, which rejects GMOs and advocates "good, clean and fair food."

"GMOs are unreliable from a scientific point of view, inefficient in economic terms and environmentally unsustainable," the Italy-based network contends on its Internet site. "Little is known about them from a health perspective... They have severe social impact, threatening traditional food cultures and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers."

Despite strong opposition, Tushemereirwe expects the bill to sail through Uganda's parliament and claims that GMOs have the backing of President Yoweri Museveni, in public and in private.

Opponents of GMOs say they threaten the sustainability of farming in Africa with accompanying restrictions that remove farmers' right to choose their own crops and seeds
"The last time I personally talked to Museveni he said: 'You continue with science. When you need a law, I'll give it to you'," said Tushemereirwe.

Mukiibi agrees that it is a matter of when, not if, the law is passed and promises to step up his opposition.

"We will intensify the campaign to preserve our biodiversity, as well as educating consumers about the problems around GMOs," he said, adding that farmers need to be advised by "independent bodies" and not just government-backed institutions.

"We cannot just sit and see our rights to choose our planting materials, seasonal cropping and local seed preservation hijacked by a few individuals and corporations who want to own all the seeds on earth."

Explore further: EU lawmakers pass controversial GMO food law

Related Stories

EU lawmakers pass controversial GMO food law

January 13, 2015

EU lawmakers on Tuesday approved controversial legislation to allow EU member states to decide for themselves whether to allow cultivation of Genetically Modified foods after years of bitter dispute.

'Super' banana to face first human trial

June 16, 2014

A super-enriched banana genetically engineered to improve the lives of millions of people in Africa will soon have its first human trial, which will test its effect on vitamin A levels, Australian researchers said Monday.

Vermont law requires labeling of GMO foods

May 8, 2014

Vermont's governor signed a law Thursday that puts the state on the path to be the first in the U.S. to require labeling of genetically modified foods, and he promptly announced an online fundraiser to fight expected legal ...

GMOs with health benefits have a large market potential

January 13, 2015

Over the last years, various GM crops with health benefits have been developed in which genes, mostly originating from other organisms, have been added. Notable examples include rice enriched with pro-vitamin A (also known ...

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
not rated yet Mar 18, 2015
screw em. I'm certain sub-Saharan Africa would be better off if everyone would just leave and let them go their own way.
antigoracle
not rated yet Mar 18, 2015
Ha..ha.. going bananas over bananas.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.