SYDNEY — Australian scientists have created genetically modified bananas with high levels of provitamin A, as a strategy to overcome vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, researcher Professor James Dales from the Queensland University of Technology told Xinhua on Friday.
Beginning in 2005, the project has begun to plant the new bananas in Uganda and are looking to expand across East Africa.
“The worst outcome of vitamin A deficiency is death and the second worst outcome is permanent blindness,” Dales explained, “It also leads to impaired immune systems and impaired brain development.”
“Even conservative estimates say that around 700,000 kids die every year of vitamin A deficiency.”
The reason why vitamin A deficiency is such a large problem in developing countries is because subsistence farmers depend on a limited number of staple foods like rice, potatoes and maize, or cooking-bananas.
“These are very, very starchy foods, high in energy, however, they are low in micronutrients like provitamin A and iron,” Dales said.
Despite the significant health issue, Dales is adamant the problem can be fixed simply by increasing the intake of either vitamin A or provitamin A.
“We are working on provitamin A, which is alpha beta-keratin, the plant source which is converted into vitamin A in the human body,” Dales said.
“To do this we generate embryogenic cell suspension, which are single cells from bananas, a little bit like stem cells.”
“Then we insert a gene from another type of banana that’s high in provitamin A into that cell and we can generate a whole banana from that process.”
Despite hugely successful results during growing trials in Australia’s North Queensland, the fruit will not be available to eat in Uganda for a further six years, due to the nation’s regulatory testing system.
But Dales expects locals to receive the positive health effects by 2025.
Although the researcher admits he’s been met with some scepticism from people with concerns about genetically modified food, “when I go through what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, rarely do I get criticism.”
“Our project is so different to all of the projects that people are concerned about,” Dales said.
“We don’t work for a large multinational, we aren’t controlling the genetic resources and we are doing something that is both for the farmer and the consumer.”
When it comes to the flavour of the new designer banana and whether the increased level of provitamin A has any effect, Dales said, “they taste exactly the same!” (Xinhua)