Vitamin A rich bananas to the rescue of E. Africans

A genetically engineered Vitamin A rich banana variety is being trialed in America that could offer relief to millions of East Africans who rely on it and could curb over 700,000 infant deaths blamed on Vitamin A deficiency.

The genetically engineered bananas are set to undergo their first human trial in the United States to test their ability to battle rampant vitamin A deficiency, a large cause of infant death and blindness throughout low-income communities around the world. The six-week trial backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation expects to have results by the end of the year and plans to have the bananas growing in Uganda by 2020.

The revelation comes at a time when most families in East Africa specifically Uganda have grappling with combating mechanism to vitamin A deficiency given bananas currently grown in the region are mainly rich in starch and potassium. Standard Ugandan bananas provide sustenance to East Africa but have low levels of nutrients such as iron and vitamin A.

“Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food,” noted the project leader, Professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology in earlier interview.

Researchers infused the staple crop in Uganda with alpha- and beta-carotene which the body turns into vitamin A as an easy solution to the problem that plagues the country, but the same modification could be used on different crops as well. If the bananas are approved for growth in Uganda, other staple crops in Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya could also be engineered with micronutrients.

Bio-fortification of staple foods has been on the rise with similar efforts recently reported in maize and orange fleshed sweet potato. In Uganda, over 55000 farmers have embraced the orange fleshed sweet potatoes Under the Agriculture for Nutrition and Health program spearheaded by HarvestPlus a part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the project is part of a move aimed at saving over 40 million children under the age of five in Africa affected by insufficient vitamin A. 

According to statistics from UNICEF, in Uganda Vitamin A deficiency killed 15,800 children in 2009 and left scores blind hence proponents of improved child health have welcomed the new bio-fortification efforts.