Bananas and plantains are the world's fourth-most important food crop after rice, wheat and corn. In sub-Saharan Africa, 100 million people depend on banana - often served steamed and mashed in the staple dish, matoke - for a quarter or more of food calories.

Unfortunately, a devastating disease epidemic is now sweeping through East Africa, destroying both banana plantations and the livelihoods of the small farmers who plant them. The 'banana xanthomonas wilt' (BXW) bacterial disease kills banana plants and turns the fruit into infected mush oozing yellow pus. It already costs East African economies $500 million per year in crop losses.

Controlling BXW is difficult and expensive; eradication impossible. The most promising option is the development of new disease-resistant banana cultivars through genetic engineering. A team of scientists, based at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Uganda, has successfully transferred a gene from sweet pepper to confer 100% resistance, and has completed field trials showing the resistant bananas are high yielding and perform well.

Unfortunately it is far from clear that Ugandan banana farmers will be able to access the innovation of their own government-funded scientists. Uganda's Biosafety Bill, necessary to establish a proper regulatory system for GM crops, has been stalled in parliament due to virulent opposition, and anti-GMO groups spread myths and scare-stories about GM crops among the wider population. Politicians are reluctant to allow GM cultivation for fear of upsetting these NGOs and their followers.

If Ugandan farmers are denied access to innovation to grow the resistant bananas, the price of this important staple food will continue to rise due to shortages, pushing more people into poverty and worsening hunger and malnutrition. We need people around the world to stand with Ugandan scientists, farmers and consumers and to support the principle of access to innovation.

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Uganda biotech law opens door to disease-resistant GMO crops

Genetically engineered crops that promise to benefit both farmers and consumers are poised to enter Uganda’s marketplace now that its Parliament has adopted a law to regulate agricultural biotechnology. Ugandan plant scientists are already in the later stages of conducting field trials for banana varieties that are resistant to diseases and can deliver improved content of the vital micronutrient Vitamin A.

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