Lack of funding has stalled a campaign to eliminate a deadly bacterial banana wilt disease that has spread to "worrying levels" in Uganda, threatening the food security of up to 14 million consumers of bananas as a staple food, say scientists.
According to a scientist at the country's premier agricultural research institute, the disease - known as the Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) - can only be contained if funding of up to US$1 million per year is secured for the fight against its spread.
Jerome Kubiriba, a research officer in charge of banana bacterial wilt disease at Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), said if the disease continues to spread, production of cooking bananas (known locally as 'matooke', a major staple food in much of the country) could be halved over the next 10 years.
Studies show that annual consumption of bananas in Uganda is the highest in the world at about 0.7kg per person per day.
"Funding of at least $1 million annually would effectively save bananas worth over $200 million annually," said Kubiriba.
"The government of Uganda used to support this effort significantly, [but] this support has drastically reduced. Even donor support dwindled since 2008. Until that time, the disease had been kept under control in major banana growing areas but it has since increased to worrying levels."
The director of crop resources in the Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries Ministry, Okaasai Opolot, says the disease, which attacks all types of bananas and is spread by insects, wind-driven rainfall, infected planting materials and contaminated planting tools, is a threat to banana production in East Africa. More than half of mountainous South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is infected by BXW, threatening the livelihoods of local communities.
Opolot said until recently, Uganda was performing well in its fight against the disease, reducing its impact - from affecting 30 percent of fields in banana-growing areas to just 5 percent. "But we became complacent and currently we are quickly falling back to where we started, as the disease has since whirled through villages and destroyed banana plantations in western Uganda," he told IRIN.
"I lost about 10 acres [four hectares] of banana to the disease... I had to abandon banana farming for a while, though it was our source of food and money," Desiderio Lwanyaga, a farmer in Kyabazala, Mukono District, told IRIN by phone, saying his family had adopted maize as an alternative food. "I am yet to recover from that, but it seems the disease is back as it has been reported in the neighbourhood."
In Uganda, banana wilt was first reported in the central district of Mukono in August 2001 and has since spread to all banana-growing areas in the country. Between 2001 and 2007, BXW spread from central parts of the country where bananas are grown for subsistence, into more than 35 districts in areas of intensive banana production. In some parts, the disease attacked 60 percent of the bananas grown. Up to 650,000 tons of bananas were produced in Uganda in 2005; however, output is estimated to have dropped to about 400,000 tons in 2008, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
Awareness campaigns, advocacy and support from policymakers and the donor community are critical to help mitigate its impact on affected farmers and their households, according to researchers who are trying to find a resistant variety.
A steering committee and a technical committee established by the Ugandan government in 2001 in response to the outbreak of the disease managed to reduce the disease incidence to less than 10 percent in areas where farmers adopted these measures, according to Opolot. However, the cost implications of the revival of these mechanisms is yet to be addressed.
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Improved agricultural practices
NARO's Kubiriba told IRIN the disease could be contained through improved agricultural practices - planting clean materials, disinfecting farm tools and early removal of male flowers. "However, once a field is infected, all banana plants should be uprooted and buried and the land left fallow or planted with different crops for six months," he said.
"We ask them [farmers] to use tools only when removing infected plants or harvesting. Even during harvesting, take care not to infect other plants and clean the tool every time after a plant is harvested," he added. "But because the campaign slowed down, the farmers also forgot about the practice. This has been costly, to say the least."
A new Vitamin-A rich banana variety and another rich in iron are also threatened by the disease, according to the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE), a science and technology advocacy group. The Vitamin-A rich variety is aimed at improving Vitamin-A intake, which scientists say can reduce blindness in children, while iron-rich bananas improve blood-iron levels in pregnant women, preventing anaemia.
"If a bacterial banana wilt-resistant banana is not quickly got, the Vitamin-A and iron-rich bananas shall also be destroyed, as there are no resistant varieties," said SCIFODE's Peter Wamboga-Mugirya.
The National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) are working to develop disease-resistant varieties, but there are problems: "Little government funding, or none at all generally to agro-research - now below 0.5 percent of GDP - jeopardizes... research products," said Wamboga-Mugirya.