GMO ‘super banana’ aims to tackle food security by addressing malnutrition

Scientists are hoping to improve food security through greater yields and less waste, particularly in the face of climate change, but other researchers plan to tackle food security at its less obvious root: malnutrition. When it comes to meeting global food security demands, it turns out that one way to use resources better is by producing more nutritious crops.

“We’ve relied on supplements for a long time to fight malnutrition,” said James Dale, director of the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. “But history shows that there is always a resistant part of [the] population that supplements can’t get to.”

In 2005, with the backing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dale began experimenting with ways to add beta-carotene, a nutrient the human body uses to produce vitamin A, to the East African Highland cooking banana, a staple in the Ugandan diet.  Relying too heavily on any one food will almost inevitably lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, meaning the Ugandan reliance on bananas is problematic in terms of nutrition.

Vitamin A deficiencies are particularly common in East African countries. With as few as 600,000 and as many as 2.5 million child deaths worldwide, and another 300,000 cases of blindness, annually attributed to a lack of the vitamin, finding ways to insert the vitamin into staple foods has become popular.

But when it comes to vitamin A, this isn’t an easy process. High levels actually become toxic to the body, and as there is no way to control how much people consume, there is really no safe way to add vitamin A directly to foodstuffs. Instead, Dale decided to look for a gene carrying high levels of provitamin A, or beta-carotene, which the liver converts into the vitamin on a need-only basis.

As Africa is slotted to take on the bulk of the future world population’s food demands, Dale’s project is certainly not unique in the region, but its fate could influence other initiatives.

“If we manage to pull this off, as with most technology, the next projects will be easier and cheaper, making bio-fortification an option for many more people and many more crops,” said Dale, reflecting.

Read the full, original article: “Super Bananas” enter U.S. market trials

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