Altering genes in crops

Ivy Tsui is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School

Matooke” means more than just the word “banana” in Uganda – it is synonymous with “food” in the local language. However, a bacterium called banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) has been infecting bananas in Africa, causing them to wilt and rot.  The destruction of this local staple has cost Ugandan farmers US$200 million since 2001.

Ugandan researchers have developed genetically modified (GM) banana varieties that have two genes from green peppers that show strong resistance to BXW in the lab and in screen houses. After obtaining approval from the Uganda National Biosafety Committee, Ugandan researchers commenced field trials on this GM banana in October of this year.

Although the general biosafety guidelines are in place, the legal framework for the commercialization of GM crops is still lacking in Uganda. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy was approved after 8 years of deliberation; yet this policy will be implemented only if the Parliament passes it into a law. With elections coming up in February next year, the debate will likely be deferred. This legal barrier poses potential problems because bacteria could develop resistance over time, thus rendering the field trials worthless.

Currently only three African countries — South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso—are growing GM crops commercially. Opponents have criticized GM food, arguing that they may cause unintentional harm to other organisms, the environment, or human health. However, proponents point out that the enhanced traits in GM foods could combat chronic malnutrition by increasing accessibility and affordability of food in Africa and the rest of the world, justifying the commercialization of GM crops.

  1. Thank you for the interesting post Ivy. Having spent this past summer in Uganda I have had my fair share of Matooke!

    As you have pointed out, the legal framework for the commercialization of genetically modified crops is lacking in Uganda. Unfortunately, even if the government passes Biotechnology and Biosafety legislation, I doubt that the government will be able to effectively regulate the commercial production of GM crops. There are several industrial agricultural facilities in Uganda. However, the majority of crops are grown in the rural north with limited mechanization and mainly in small scale operations. Additionally, the process by which products are sold to the general public has almost no regulatory procedures.

    In my opinion, Uganda does not yet have the scientific and infrastructural capacity to ensure that these products would be safe for mass consumption. Matooke (a type of banana which is steamed and mashed) is a staple dish in Uganda and regularly consumed at every meal. Matooke is critical to Uganda because it is a readily available product that fulfills dietary needs. I fear that with the lack of infrastructure and regulatory capacity the commercialization of GM Matooke could have disastrous effects (either from unsafe consumption or the homogenization of crops) to the most important agriculture product in Uganda.

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