PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The term “genetically modified” often scares American consumers, bringing to mind the scandals of Monsanto. But recently, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, with assistance from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have developed a new type of genetically modified banana that could save thousands of lives.
The bananas are modified to contain larger amounts of beta-carotene, a hydrocarbon that the body uses to create vitamin A. Other species of bananas contain these larger amounts, but these species are not cultivated to be eaten by humans. Scientists used the genomes of these beta-carotene-rich types of bananas to isolate which genes control beta-carotene production in those plants.
They then inserted these genes into the Highland, or East African, cooking banana — a species commonly grown in many countries in Eastern Africa. The added beta-carotene creates more of an orange hue in the genetically modified bananas, but this seems to be the most drastic change in the plants. Beta-carotene is the reason why plants like pumpkins and carrots are so orange.
The substance is necessary because of its ability to manufacture vitamin A. Around 250to 300 million children are vitamin A deficient. Often, these children go blind. They also suffer from a higher risk of certain severe infections like the measles. There are over 285 million people who suffer from visual impairment, and 80 percent of these issues are preventable. For the majority of children, vitamin A could be the difference between healthy vision or a sightless future — one which is often cut short by that impairment.
The genetically modified bananas can provide these children’s bodies a way to make vitamin A. This will help prevent the 250,000 to 500,000 children lacking the vitamin from becoming blind, and will help protect the half of these children, who will die within a year, of losing their sight. Many of these children are under 6 years old.
There is also beta-carotene in breast milk. When mothers are deficient, their children are affected. The best way to provide beta-carotene is in food.
Africa imports $40 billion worth of food every year, using valuable foreign trade resources to nourish its population. This could be helped by finding a way to grow more crops with the same amount of water or by fighting the diseases that plague crops such as beans, peanuts and rice. Or, farmers can begin growing more efficient crops, like the genetically modified banana. The crop is already common to many East African countries, and 70 percent of Ugandans survive on bananas. The plan is to establish the new crop in Uganda first, before spreading across other regions of Africa.
Before this plan can be put into action, human tests must take place. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $10 million toward the process. There have been successful tests run on Mongolian gerbils, but now researchers will test whether or not humans show increased vitamin A levels when they eat the bananas. These first tests will be performed at Iowa State University; five Ugandan Ph.D. students will assist in the project that could benefit their country.
The goal is to see genetically modified bananas growing in Africa by 2020. Half of all countries suffer from vitamin A deficiency, so this crop can help places all over the world improve their health and vision. If all goes well in Uganda, then Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and areas within the Democratic Republic of Congo will all get the opportunity to grow the crop.
If genetic modification in bananas works to supply more of the world’s population with necessary nutrients, other crops could be next, and super-foods of all kinds could be designed to enhance the welfare of people everywhere.