We funded a variety of projects addressing declining banana yields in Africa through research into diseases; the multiplication and distribution of improved varieties; farmer training; and the development of transgenic plants with disease-resistance.
Banana and its close relative plantain are a staple food in large parts of Africa, but falling soil fertility and disease outbreaks have hit yields. Since 1993 Gatsby has funded a variety of projects trying to reverse declining banana yields.
Early work focused on understanding why new varieties developed with resistance to Black Sigatoka disease were showing virus symptoms. Gatsby funded a joint-project between the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the John Innes Centre in the UK which found varieties were suffering from Banana Streak Virus (BSV), and uncovered a previously unknown kind of virus behaviour, whereby sections of viral DNA become integrated into the plant’s genome, lying dormant until the plant becomes stressed. The collaboration produced improved diagnostics to monitor BSV infection.
Gatsby subsequently supported IITA, the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO) and the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research to rapidly multiply and disseminate improved varieties in Uganda and Ghana. By 2003, 250 mother gardens had been established and 40,000 tissue cultured plantlets distributed in Uganda. Farmers were also trained to improve crop management and post-harvest handling.
In 2004, Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) swept through Uganda, threatening to derail progress. Gatsby support was used to raise awareness of BXW, train farmers and extension officers, and research appropriate control strategies. The Gatsby-founded Kilimo Trust subsequently supported a national control programme, based on good farmer practice of male de-budding.
In parallel to these efforts, Gatsby supported IITA scientists attempting to produce transgenic banana plants with resistance to first BSV and then BXW. By 2011, IITA’s work had made considerable progress, transplanting a sweet pepper gene - which produces a protein that kills infected cells - into bananas. IITA has tested the first generation of transgenic banana suckers in controlled greenhouse conditions, and they have shown no sign of susceptibility to BXW. This raises the possibility of a dual-approach control strategy in the future.