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2-Plants: GE banana hype pays off

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                                  PART I
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TITLE:  Bananas not on verge of extinction, says FAO
        Food agency calls for greater diversity in commercial bananas
DATE:   Jan 30, 2003

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Bananas not on verge of extinction, says FAO
Food agency calls for greater diversity in commercial bananas 

30 January 2003, Rome, Italy -- Responding to recent media reports that
bananas may be extinct within 10 years, the UN Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) urged producers to promote greater genetic diversity
in commercial bananas.

FAO pointed out that small-scale farmers around the world grow a wide
range of bananas that are not threatened by the disease currently
attacking bananas sold mostly in Europe and North America. The Cavendish
banana, found mostly on western supermarket shelves, has been under
attack in some Asian countries by a new strain of Fusarium wilt, also
known as "Panama disease." "What is happening is the inevitable
consequence of growing one genotype on a large scale," said Eric
Kueneman, Chief of FAO's Crop and Grassland Service. The Cavendish banana
is a "dessert type" banana that is cultivated mostly by the large-scale
banana companies for international trade. The Cavendish banana is
important in world trade, but accounts for only 10 percent of bananas
produced and consumed globally, according to FAO. Virtually all
commercially important plantations grow this single genotype. Its
vulnerability is inevitable and not unexpected. The Cavendish's
predecessor, the Gros Michel, suffered the same fate at the hands of
fungal diseases, so this is a warning that we may need to find a
replacement for the Cavendish banana in the future, FAO said.

So far the problem has only been seen in Southeast Asia. However, Mahmoud
Solh, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, warned:
"The consequences of the problem will be more dramatic if this phenomenon
reaches Latin America and the Caribbean, where banana is a major
plantation crop and a source of employment and income for a large section
of the population."

Fortunately, small-scale farmers around the world have maintained a broad
genetic pool which can be used for future banana crop improvement. Banana
is essentially a clonal crop with many sterile species, which makes
progress through conventional breeding slow and difficult. Because of
this, new breeding methods and tools, including biotechnology, will be
helpful to develop resistant bananas for cultivation. This does not
necessarily mean the use of transgenics, FAO said.

FAO called for:
- development of more diversity in the banana, especially for export bananas.
- promoting awareness of the inevitable consequences of a narrow genetic
base in crops and the need for a broader genetic base for commercial bananas.
- strengthening plant breeding programmes in developing countries for
banana and other basic staple crops.

In the past, FAO has supported banana improvement through mutation
breeding with the joint FAO and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Division in Vienna. However, scarce resources have slowed this effort.
Since more than 50 percent of the banana germplasm (land races) are
sterile, biotechnology and mutation breeding are important tools that can
improve banana varieties without the threat of genetic drift, said FAO.

John Riddle Information Officer, FAO
+(39) 06 5705 3259

                                  PART II
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TITLE:  Kawanda Gets GM Lab
SOURCE: New Vision, Uganda, by Patrick Luganda
DATE:   Jan 29, 2003

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Kawanda Gets GM Lab
The fear of genetically modified crops is of genes escaping into the

A MODERN laboratory has been built at the Kawanda Agricultural Research
Institute, to genetically modify bananas.

Several scientists in the National Agricultural Research Organisation
(NARO) and other collaborating institutions, are currently undergoing
training at the lab in modern genetic engineering techniques at the

Dr. Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, the head of the Banana Programme says the
production of genetically modified bananas resistant to a wide range of
diseases, may take between 8-10 years.

Sources told the New Vision that the Government initiated work on the
production of a genetically modified banana in the year 2000.

The Government provided the initial funding and other organisations
joined in to form a consortium of donors. These include the Rockefeller
Foundation, The Belgian Government and USAID.

The Government appointed the International Network for the Improvement of
Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) as the implementing agency to coordinate the

Researchers have been working to save the banana but sources say there
was a drawback when it was discovered that there is no legislation in
place to cover research into genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

"We are still very far from getting a genetically modified banana, but
are developing methods of doing so. Getting the methods right is very
important and takes a long time. We hope to finally make it in 8-10 years
time," says Tushemereirwe.

Several scientists say the banana was the safest plant to experiment on
because most bananas are sterile and unable to produce seed.

This means that the newly inserted genes run very little risk of
spreading to their wild relatives or other species.

"The biggest fear about genetically modified crops is that of new genes
escaping into the environment. Because of the infertility of bananas, the
chances of genes escaping is extremely remote," says Tushemereirwe.

He says the scientists are keen to produce a banana variety that is safe
for human consumption and has an acceptable taste.

The researchers now await the formulation of a regulatory law that is
currently being drafted by the National Council for Science and
Technology, to be debated by Parliament.

The banana laboratory at the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute has
been equipped with the tools required for the research. Basic work on the
production of the genetically modified banana has began with the
isolation of DNA samples.

Researchers are now preparing the cells of local banana varieties in
which they will introduce genetically modified genes.