By Brandon Mitchener
More than 10 years ago now, I wrote an article on how the EU debate over genetically modified seeds and foods was stopping Ugandans from accessing the solutions that could help feed their population, and could help prevent disease and destruction of their most vial crops. One of the most alarming examples was that of bananas.
For Ugandans, bananas are more than a staple, they are “food” (they are actually called “food” in Uganda). Ugandans eat more bananas than any other nation. But the debate then raging over biotech foods in Europe was preventing Ugandans from doing field trials with banana seeds that could resist one of the banana plants’ biggest threats–leaf disease.
Twelve years later the debate still rages on, but I was heartened to hear recently that Vitamin A enriched ‘Super bananas’ could be available to Ugandan farmers by 2020.
Australian researchers have developed bananas that have elevated levels of Pro- Vitamin A. Quite simply, this development will save lives. The World Health Organisation estimates that 250 million children under the age of 5 are Vitamin A deficient, and that 250,000 to 500,000 children will become blind each year from the deficiency. Half of those children die within 12 months of losing their sight.
In Africa, it’s estimated that 42% of children under 5 suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, with Uganda being one of the most affected countries. HarvestPlus, a research organisation that is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), estimates that 28% of Ugandan children and 23% of Ugandan women are Vitamin A deficient (and in case you’re wondering, you can check out HarvestPlus’ donors here).
Increasing levels of Vitamin A through Uganda’s staple food will be one of the most effective means of increasing nutrition and saving lives. If successful, this development won’t just save lives in Uganda, but has the potential to save millions of lives globally over coming generations. Researchers believe that the development could be easily applied to staple crops in other countries, such as plantain bananas, which are a staple crop in West Africa.
This is biotech at its best. Taking science and technology, and through the process of biofortification, coming up with life improving, life-saving solutions.