High rates of chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies of Vitamin A and iron among women and children remain Uganda's most common malnutrition problems, suffocating efforts to reduce child and maternal mortality. But an edible banana could solve this problem.
"To address the vitamin problem, we are getting the genes that increase vitamins from other plants which produce more vitamins, and genes of iron from plants that produce more iron and putting them in bananas," says Professor Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, Programme Leader National Banana Research Programme at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO).
The soybean gene, ferritin, has been inserted in banana cells to make a protein that enhances the iron storage in banana fruit pulp. Other genes inserted are from plants rich in provitamin A, yellow maize and the non-edible banana, Asupina. The resultant modified bananas are currently growing on half an acre of land at the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute, north of the capital Kampala.
"We are at a stage where we are about to prove that the concept works; that when you put these genes in a banana plant, the plant will express and produce provitamin A and will accumulate the iron. That is what we want to first demonstrate. If successful, the new variety will contain four times the content of Vitamin A that it currently does," Tushemereire says. This is the first time that a genetically modified crop is being developed on African soil but it may be another eight years of research before the improved banana cultivars are ready for commercial planting, Tushemereirwe says.
Now in its fifth year, the research is being jointly conducted by researchers from Uganda's NARO and Australia's Queensland University of Technology.
"What I consider our biggest success is that the genes we have put in these bananas are working very well in Australia. They are now being evaluated in an Australian banana where they have managed to increase provitamin A by four times. So we are waiting to see whether we shall get the fourfold increase here. Our success is, so far, indirect," Tushmereirwe says.
The genetically modified bananas will be appropriate for Ugandan consumers, he says. Seventy three percent of children under five and 49 percent of women of child-bearing age in the country are anaemic. Vitamin A deficiency also affects 20 percent of women and children, according to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey 2006.
In addition, malnutrition in Uganda affects over two million children under five. Estimated projections suggest that over 520,000 children will die as a consequence of undernourishment alone between 2006 and 2015 if the status quo is maintained. Also, approximately 24 percent of maternal mortality is associated with iron deficiency, and estimated projections suggest that the current levels of anaemia among women of reproductive age will result in the deaths of 15,000 mothers between 2006 and 2015, according to the 'The Analysis of the Nutrition situation in Uganda' published by USAID and Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance.
In light of this, it is no wonder that Uganda's ministry of health has embraced the development of the modified banana as one strategy to fight malnutrition. "The advantage of (the) bio diversification of crops is that it is affordable by the community and they can be trained to grow it. It becomes much cheaper because people believe fortified products bought off the shelf may have cost implications," Dr. Elizabeth Madraa, Head of Nutrition at the ministry of health told IPS.
Nutritionists agree. "I think it's a really brilliant idea. Vitamin A deficiency takes a good percentage of deficiencies in Uganda, especially among women of child-bearing age and their newborn babies," says Sarah Muitta Magoola, a nutritionist at International Hospital Kampala.
While controversies about genetically modified foods may exist, with some questioning its safety, Tushemereirwe says the development is in the best interest of Uganda's nutrition requirements. "It's not the need for GM bananas per se. What we need is bananas that address the problems of consumers here. We are unable to get those bananas using the conventional means."
"We are also trying the GM approach to see whether we can get something better We are interested in bananas that have traits and characteristics that address the problems of our consumers and our farmers we are using the safest technologies," he says.
Mass sensitisation of consumers about the genetically modified banana as well as the importance of Vitamin A is important, Magoola says. "If the new crop is going to be put on the market, farmers should know why they are planting that banana and how it will help them. The people who are suffering (from deficiencies) are not the middle class or the rich but the poor people at the grassroots."
There is also need to sensitise people more about the dangers of Vitamin A deficiency and which foods they can get it in. "Some people think because blindness comes at a later stage while others just attach blindness with many other things like witchcraft. (But upon investigation) you find that many of the (blind) people were deficient of Vitamin A," Magoola says.
But Tushemereirwe says his organisation has a communication plan which will inform stakeholders about the modified banana.
Source: Inter Press Service