Monsanto’s herbicide-laced corn and soy have become the nefarious poster children of genetically engineered food. But less talked about are the GMOs that have been designed to improve the quality of people’s lives. The latest example advocated by the GMOs-could-be-awesome camp? "Super bananas."
Bananas are the main source of starch in Uganda; each person eats roughly one pound of them every day. But the staple of the East African region lacks micronutrients such as provitamin A (a substance that could be converted to vitamin A in an organism) and iron. According to lead researcher James Dale, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, 650,000 to 700,000 children around the world die from vitamin A deficiency every year. Another 300,000 go blind.
The super banana project began in 2005 to address this problem. Enriched with provitamin A, the fruits were engineered for Ugandans and other African populations suffering from nutrient deficiencies.
"Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with provitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food,” Dale explained in a press release.
The team has sent engineered bananas harvested from a field in Queensland to the U.S. to test whether the enriched fruits could indeed improve vitamin A levels in humans. Results aren’t expected until the end of the year, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–backed project is already conducting field trials in Uganda.
Bananas can grow from clippings, so it’s less likely that big corporations can monopolize control over their seeds, as Monsanto has done with corn and soy. The Parliament of Uganda is reviewing legislation that would allow companies to commercialize GMO crops in the country; with government support, regulations could be in place by 2020. Once the enriched crops are approved, Dale sees them being grown in nearby countries, such as Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania.