The mass-production of so-called ‘super-bananas’ enriched with vitamin A may begin in Uganda as early as 2020 pending approval by the country’s legislators, according to the project’s lead scientist, James Dale.
The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) project is backed by $10m from the Bill and Miranda Gates Foundation, and involves biofortification of bananas - one of the region’s main staple foods - to help reduce vitamin A and iron deficiencies in East Africa.
It offers a practical and long-term solution to the often life-threatening consequences of nutrient deficiencies, said Dale.
"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."
Around 650,000-700,000 children world-wide are dying as a result of vitamin A deficiency, explained Dale. This can lead to an impaired immune system and affects brain development.
"The Highland or East African cooking banana, which is chopped and steamed … has low levels of micronutrients particularly pro-vitamin A and iron.
“We are aiming to increase the level of pro-vitamin A to a minimum of 20 micrograms per gram dry weight in order to significantly improve the health status of African banana consumers."
Initial laboratory tests on the bananas – which have orange-coloured flesh - were performed at QUT in Brisbane with field trials in far north Queensland, which were later extended to Uganda.
"Hundreds of different permutations went into field trials up north. Now the really high-performing genes have been taken to Uganda and have been put into field trials there," he said.
The next phase involves an ‘elite’ breed of banana plants selected for a three year programme of multi-location field trials in Uganda which will run in tandem with six-week long independent human trials in the US.
Professor Dale explained the ultimate goal was to distribute plants free of charge to Ugandan farmers.
“We have developed a strategy that should result in rapid dissemination in the target populations which really are the poorest of the poor.”
Millions will benefit
Once legislation on the mass-production of the GM bananas is ratified Professor Dale is confident the technology could be used to enrich crops across East Africa, including in Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.
"In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well," he said.
"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."