Tweaking the Banana’s Genome Could Save the Lives of Thousands of Children in Uganda

But not everyone agrees that GMO crops should be used to solve food and nutrition problems

Photo: Patrice Tourenne/Photononstop/Corbis

Each year, thousands of children in East Africa go blind or die because they don't get enough vitamin A. Now, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ugandan, American and Australian researchers are trying to develop a potential fix: a genetically modified banana that packs a significantly larger vitamin A punch, the Australian Associated Press reports

The bananas, the AAP continues, have already been successfully tested on gerbils. Researchers created the new bananas by slightly tweaking its genome so that the fruit contains more alpha and beta carotene—plant-synthesized substances that animals convert into vitamin A. The new bananas have a slight orange hue but taste the same as non-genetically modified bananas, AFP adds.

Human trials just began in Iowa, the AAP reports, and if they're successful, farmers in Uganda will be growing the GMO bananas by 2020. About 70 percent of people there rely on bananas as a major staple of their diets, so delivering the extra vitamin boost through the fruit should be an effective means of helping to alleviate vitamin A deficiency. If the GM banana scheme helps reduce death and blindness rates in Uganda, it could be transferred to other countries or applied to other fruits, like plantains. 

Bananas are not the only food whose yield or nutritional profile could be improved with genetic engineering, as Technology Review reports. With climate change threatening to disrupt existing crops and growing global populations demanding more of those supplies, genetic engineering could be a solution for making the most of limited space and resources. Quite a number of foods that fit this profile have already been created—including virus-resistant papaya and squash, and blight-resistant potatoes—and others are under consideration.

However, as TechReview writes, GMO crops developed for altruistic or humanitarian purposes are still subject to debate: 

Opponents worry that inserting foreign genes into crops could make food dangerous or allergenic, though more than 15 years of experience with transgenic crops have revealed no health dangers, and neither have a series of scientific studies. More credibly, detractors suggest that the technology is a ploy by giant corporations, particularly Monsanto, to peddle more herbicides, dominate the agricultural supply chain, and leave farmers dependent on high-priced transgenic seeds. The most persuasive criticism, however, may simply be that existing transgenic crops have done little to guarantee the future of the world’s food supply in the face of climate change and a growing population.

For better or worse, however, GMO crops probably will become more prevalent in the future. For that reason, Fast Company writes, "we need to ensure that in our haste to fix the planet's food problems that we don't inadvertently create new health and environmental problems--and hand over the entire agriculture industry to a select few companies." 

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