Monday, March 14, 2011

Or what you will

To be performed at The National Theatre in Kampala in early April. "'Twill be admirable".

Friday, March 11, 2011

Banana Republic

Uganda is a true "banana republic", not in the disparaging meaning of the expression, first coined to describe the United Fruit empire in central America in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the significance of bananas as the preferred staple crop. Most Ugandans consume huge quantities every year - some estimates put daily consumption about 1 kg per day - mostly of matooke (cooking bananas) but also of the delicious sweet "apple" bananas pictured, and many other varieties.
Quite apart from their taste, bananas have been a great crop for Ugandan farmers, because they are incredibly easy to grow. Plant a sucker and, provided it rains, the sucker will grow rapidly and produce a truss - perhaps weighing 15 kg or more - within a year of planting. It needs little or no inputs and maintenance: nature does all the work. And indeed, once the banana plant is established, it will throw out further suckers which, left alone, will in turn grow and produce within a year. As with the potato in pre-blight Ireland, it is the easiest option for the farmer.
But, just as potato blight ravaged the Irish potato crop in the mid-19th century, causing a disastrous famine, so Uganda is falling victim to banana bacterial wilt disease. Bacterial wilt kills the banana plant and infects the soil. It spreads rapidly, mainly because transplanted suckers are the normal method of propagation. Experts estimate that crop losses may be in the region of $500 million per annum. This in itself is very significant, of course, but the slight reduction in supply of matooke to urban markets also results in substantial food price inflation.
Ugandan researchers have, with local and international support, been working on solutions to banana bacterial wilt. Indeed, my colleagues at the Kilimo Trust provided a grant to Uganda's National Banana Research Programme for this very purpose. And progress is being made: disease-free tissue-culture banana plantlets are available in Uganda; improved farming practices can restrict the spread of bacterial wilt. But perhaps the most promising solution is the most controversial: the incorporation of a sweet pepper gene into the banana to inhibit the transmission and spread of bacterial wilt.
There is a great deal of international hostility to GMOs - most of which, in my opinion, is based on emotion rather than fact - and this hostility presents itself among many in the donor community who finance national agricultural research and development bodies in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. But they tend to overlook one very important fact of life in low-income countries; namely, that opposition to GMOs is driven by the wealthy, by people who have choices in the food that they eat. For the poor, the simple availability and affordability of food is infinitely more important than the manner in which it is produced.