Will A Genetically-Modified Orange Banana Go Down In Africa?

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Researchers hope to start growing a vitamin-enhanced super-banana in Uganda by 2020 with trials set to take place in the U.S. over a six-week period, BusinessInsider reports.

The bananas have been genetically modified to increase levels of vitamin A, and the modified banana flesh is more orange than a usual banana, but otherwise looks the same, a researcher told AFP.

The project is funded with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was created by Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

Researchers say the highland or East African cooking banana is a dietary staple in East Africa but has low levels of micronutrients, particularly vitamin A and iron.

East African Highland bananas are one of the most important staple food crops in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. Per capita annual consumption of bananas in Uganda is the highest in the world at 0.70 kilograms (1.5 pounds) daily per person, according to EastAfricanHighlandBananas.com.

Uganda is the second-largest producer of bananas in the world but one of the
smallest exporters, the crops being used mostly for local markets. In Rwanda and Burundi, consumption is about 250 to 400 kg (550-to-880 pounds) per person annually (about three to 11 bananas each day).

East African Highland bananas are so important as food crops that matoke, a traditional meal made from steamed bananas, is synonymous for the word “food” in Uganda.

Many people go blind worldwide from vitamin A deficiencies, and hundreds of thousands of people die annually worldwide, the project’s leader told AFP.

“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000-to-700,000 children worldwide dying…each year and at least another 300,000 going blind,” Prof. James Dale said.

He said good science can make a difference by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food.

“We know our science will work,” Dale said. “We made all the constructs, the genes that went into bananas, and put them into bananas here (at Queensland University).”

If the project is approved in Uganda after the U.S. trials, micronutrient-enriched or genetically-modified crops could also be approved in Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania, AFP reports.

“In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well,” Dale said.

Check out this video to see what a Canadian company is doing with the matoke banana.