KAMPALA, Uganda — We are familiar with making genetically modified crops (GMOs) resistant to drought, pests and even diseases. But what if we were to use them to create greater nutritional value?
A recent project lead by Professor James Dale at Queensland University in Australia seems to have done just that. Scientists created a GMO banana that is full of Vitamin A. They plan on using it to fight malnutrition and vitamin deficiency around the world.
Vitamin A deficiency kills anywhere from 600,000 to 2.5 million children around the world. Another 300,000 become blind as a result of the deficiency. The condition is most common in countries where malnutrition is endemic.
Uganda has a particularly tough time because bananas, which have very little Vitamin A, are a staple food source. Ugandans eat anywhere from three to 11 bananas a day, meaning that while they get plenty of potassium, yet they are lacking basic nutrients that keep them healthy.
Dale and his team have come up with a solution. “There is very good evidence that Vitamin A deficiency leads to an impaired immune system and can even have an impact on brain development,” says Dale. “Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Uganda’s bananas with pro-Vitamin A and providing poor and substance farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food.“
This is exactly what they have done. The “super banana” is a GMO banana that has more than the natural amounts of alpha-beta-carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A.
The project, which began in 2005, is funded by a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, and works on global health and poverty issues around the world.
The idea is to get more nutrients to populations that suffer from significant malnutrition and vitamin deficiency in the most effective way possible. The typical method has been to provide vitamin capsules, but Dr. Erick Boy, nutritionist at HarvestPlus, says this method is “not realistic for target populations.” He hopes that GMOs will be a more effective way.
The “super banana” project is now in its most important stage: the first human tests. The banana was given permission to be tested with humans in the U.S. in June of 2014, and scientists in Iowa are poised to feed these orange-tinged fruits to their subjects. If results are promising, Dale and his team aim to be have local farmers growing these GMO bananas in Uganda by 2020. For this to happen, Uganda must first change its policy to allow production of GMO plants.
The use of genetic modification techniques to make more beneficial food is not a completely novel idea. Scientists played around with the concept of administering vaccines for diseases like hepatitis B in genetically altered banana chips and tomato paste as early as the 1990s. More recently, HarvestPlus, a group that works on global nutrition and is following the “super banana’s” progress carefully, cross-breed sweet potatoes in Mozambique and Uganda to have more beta-carotene. Results showed that people who ate those sweet potatoes were healthier.
But the struggle is getting farmers to grow genetically altered food. Fia bananas introduced into East Africa in the early 2000s failed miserably. “People just hated it,” said Dr. Matthew Schnurr, a professor of international development at Dalhousie University. ” The color, texture, people rejected it. Now, virtually no one grows or eats fia bananas in the region.” There is a concern that this will be the fate of the “super banana” as well.
The “super banana” has met its fair share of GMO controversy. Scientists still have not discovered the full effects of GMOs on human health. However, GMO crops have been a crucial part of the global food supply since as far back as the 1990s. They now account for 12 percent of farmable land across the world in 28 countries.
There is also serious concern whether the “super bananas” will work. Dr. Boy believes the effects will be subtle, if the beta-carotene infused bananas make a difference at all.
But some are more optimistic. The Gates Foundation, a funder of the project, has supported GMO foods publically since 2010. “Poor countries that have the toughest time feeding their people have a process… there should be an open mindedness, and if they can specifically prove GMO safety and benefits, food should be approved,” says the foundation.
One major worry is that GMO bananas will cost the farmers too much to produce. Genetically modified vegetables are sterile organisms, meaning new crops need to be planted with fresh seeds every time. Farmers in the target regions usually grow their crops from the last year’s fruit’s seeds, but this will not work with GMOs. The seeds could get expensive for farmers to purchase and halt the distribution of the “super banana” and its benefits.
Ultimately, the project is worth a try, despite challenges. It could mean less malnutrition, less deaths from Vitamin A deficiency and healthier, more successful populations. If it works, the “super banana” could be used in other parts of Africa like Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania where bananas are also staples in the locals’ diets. “This has to have some positive effect on food security and nutrition, not just in Uganda but worldwide,” says Dale. “Super bananas” could be life-saving.
– Caitlin Thompson