Confined field trials on Genetically Modified banana variety genetically engineered to resist a bacterial disease that has been decimating crops across Africa will begin in Kenya in 2014, a researcher said on Thursday.
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Plant Biotechnologists Dr. Leena Tripathi told journalists in Nairobi that the research conducted so far in Uganda shows that the variety holds a lot of promise.
"We have proof of concept for bacteria wilt resistance and so another set of trials will be conducted in Kenya from 2014," Tripathi said during an Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology conference (OFAB) in Nairobi.
The monthly event brings stakeholders in the agricultural sector to discuss the latest scientific developments. The inserted gene that is responsible for the resistance is common in a broad range of plant species.
The new variety is part of wider efforts to improve the East African Highland banana, a fruit so important to people across the East Africa region.
But scientists said delays to a law regulating the commercial growing of GM food in the country means that it is not clear when the improved banana could be released o farmers.
Currently, there is no cure to the bacteria and therefore farmers are advised to remove the infected plant materials and bury them deep into the ground.
"While cultural practices can be used to delay the introduction of the bacteria, use of the resistance varieties is the best way of the containing the disease," she said.
"Since the bacteria survive in the soil for six months, the land should be left to fallow or be used to plant another crop," Dr. Tripathi said.
The IITA official said that confined field trials began in Uganda in October 2010 in order to evaluate the resistance to the bacteria as well as agronomic performance.
"At least 12 transgenic lines showed complete resistance to the wilt over three generations," she said.
The plant biotechnologist said that the second phase of trials will begin in Uganda in June 2013. The researcher added that the bacteria attacks all banana varieties in east and central Africa.
"So, we will begin transformation of five common varieties in Kenya and Uganda before rolling it out to cover all types," Tripathi said. She said that the disease was first reported in Ethiopia over 40 years ago.
"But it keeps spreading and it now covers Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo. If it is not controlled it will spread to the rest of banana growing regions of Africa," she said.
She noted that the disease is spread by insect vectors moving from one infected plant to another. "Use of infected planting materials and farming equipment could also spread the bacteria," Dr. Tripathi said.
She said that farmers could use certified laboratories in Kenya in order to confirm the presence of the disease. "Another group of researchers are also developing a rapid diagnostic kit that will aid farmers in identifying the disease," she said.
The IITA official noted that farmers' yields are also threatened by pests such as nematodes and weevils as well as fungal and viral diseases.
"However, bacterial wilt is responsible for the greatest damage by causing premature ripening of the fruit," she said. Uganda is the world's second largest producer but number one consumer of the food crop.
She said that banana is currently the fourth most important crop in Africa. "In fact a third of the world's 130 million tonnes annual production comes from the continent," she said.
Experts have estimated that globally, total economic losses from the wilt were between 2 to 8 billion US dollars over the past decade. She noted that final product would be ready by the end of 2018.
"However, the actual date of commercial release will depend on when the biosafety authorities will approve the product," the biotechnologist said.
OFAB Kenya Chapter Dr. Margaret Karembu said that bacteria wilt is a priority disease in Kenya. "However, the genetically improved varieties will be thoroughly tested before they are declared safe, " she said.
OFAB Kenya Liaison Officer Kwame Ogero said that impact of the new banana varieties will depend on its rate of adoption by farmers.