Vitamin A deficiency contributes to blindness, weak immune systems, impaired brain development, as well as 650-700,000 child deaths globally each year. Tackling this issue has been problematic since nutrient supplements are costly and fortifying foods with vitamin A directly can result in over-consumption and become toxic. Enter the super banana, a genetically engineered fruit designed to combat malnutrition.
In Uganda, the super banana’s target market, roughly 15 to 30 percent of Ugandan women of fertile age and children under age five suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Bananas are also a critical staple food; many Ugandans consume between 3 and 11 bananas every day, accounting for roughly 30 percent of their daily caloric intake. Given this reliance on a single crop, it makes sense that scientists are exploring ways to use the banana for greater good.
The super banana is a bi-fortification project where the nutritional contents of the East African Highland cooking banana plant have been altered. By introducing higher concentrations of alpha and beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, the super banana allows the body to produce up to ten times more vitamin A without becoming toxic. It was conceived by James Dale, Distinguished Professor at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia.
Hundreds of different permutations of the crop have been tested in northern Queensland and it is now ready for human trials to begin, thanks to nearly ten million dollars in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Trials will take place in the United States over a six-week period and results are expected by the end of this year. Project leads hope to have the product approved for cultivation and in market by 2020. If successful, plans for expansion include Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and the DRC.
“This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in so doing lift the health and well-being of countless millions of people over generations,” says Professor Dale.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have always been a major source of controversy, and the super banana is no different. On one side, proponents argue the genetically-altered banana could address a very pressing East African health challenge in a simple and affordable way. And, on the other hand, skeptics claim the super banana is just another publicity stunt designed to give GMOs and the companies that back them a better name.
There are also moderate skeptics who question whether the super banana would ever be widely adopted. GMOs are not currently permitted for commercial sale in Uganda, so there is very little incentive for farmers to grow the crops. And, even if they were legal to sell, evidence suggests they may not be consumed. In the early 2000s, a high-yielding variety of fia bananas were introduced in East Africa, but people rejected the product’s taste, colour and texture. The orange pigment of the super banana could pose the same challenge.
The current debate is reminiscent of the ongoing Golden Rice controversy. In the early 90s, biologists Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus first began work on a genetically engineered, vitamin A-enhanced rice known as ‘Golden Rice’. Despite successful clinical trials in the U.S., the crop has been met with over a decade of resistance from Greenpeace and other anti-GMO advocates.
Is the super-banana a life saving innovation or another Golden Rice controversy in the making?
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