Vitamin A deficiency is still an issue in many parts of the world, Africa and southeast Asia the areas in which it is most prevalent.
Lack of this nutrient–crucial to vision, organ health, and support of the immune and reproductive systems–can cause blindness and weakened immune response, sometimes leading even to death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in more than half of all countries, with children and pregnant women suffering from it most.
It has made elimination of this problem a goal in which an “arsenal of nutritional ‘well-being weapons’ includes a combination of breastfeeding and vitamin A supplementation, coupled with enduring solutions, such as promotion of vitamin A-rich diets and food fortification.”
Announcing the Newest Hero: Super Banana!
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In answer to this worthy goal, Queensland University of Technology in Australia has developed a strain of “super banana” that is rich in vitamin A. The cooking banana indigenous to east Africa is a staple of many nations’ diets in that region.
It is eaten cooked and contains low levels of micronutrients, including vitamin A. By infusing provitamin A genes into the banana, the levels increase dramatically. Plans for field trials in Uganda are in place, pending the approval of that country’s legislature of the commercial growing of genetically-modified (GM) crops. The first human trials are set for Iowa State University in the coming weeks.
Professor James Dale, the head researcher of this $10 million project (funded by the Gates Foundation), is very excited about the advances:
“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…We know our science will work…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 wellbeing of countless millions of people over generations.”
Even if the Ugandan legislation passes, there are many questions as to how those at highest risk of vitamin A deficiency will obtain access to the GM fruit. Education, affordability, and accessibility are all significant concerns. If field trials are successful, the genetically-modified orange-fleshed bananas could be ready for commercial manufacturing by 2020. The technology could then be further expanded to create new fortified bananas of other varieties.
Too Good to be True?
This sounds incredible and wonderful, as do the promises of all genetically-modified foods. But as with all GM foods, we must tread very carefully. Multitudinous studies have found problems with GM foods and their impacts on human health.
Farmers Have Been Cross-Breeding Plants for Time Immemorial.
There has been success in the (non-GM) breeding of vegetables to contain higher levels of micronutrients. HarvestPlus is an organization committed to that aim. “Biofortification” is the means by which seeds and plant roots are cross-bred with more nutritious varieties from around the world to increase nutritional quality. This method is not without its pitfalls. A study on this very topic was published in 2011 and found:
“The provitamin A biofortification of banana could provide a sustainable and cost effective method to ameliorate vitamin A deficiency in many tropical countries where banana is a staple food. However, matrix effects in banana may limit the absorption of vitamins, which could render biofortification efforts ineffective[emphasis added]…studies provide support for matrix effects negatively impacting provitamin A absorption because limited VA bioefficacy was observed regardless of provitamin A concentration.”
Other research on biofortified plantains in Uganda found:
“Breeding banana/plantain (Musa) is complex, as commercial varieties are sterile triploids (3X). Among the fertile groups, a high degree of cross incompatibility can exist. Further, the Musa crop cycle is long. Initially, high-provitamin A African Musa varieties adapted under relevant conditions in African target countries were evaluated and deployed to farmers along with crop management recommendations. In the longer term, breeding combines the best provitamin A sources with African elite varieties, which carry the productivity, disease and virus resistance, and sensory traits farmers prefer…Challenges: The yield (bunch size) of the vitamin A-rich varieties is relatively low compared to local varieties within similar genomic groups. The process of ordering, tissue multiplication, trial establishment, and continued evaluation is often longer than planned.”
We all would love to see the improvement of health across the globe. The means by which to do so is there. Solutions as to how to go about it differ. Awareness is the first step.