Black Affairs, Africa and Development

‘Super bananas’ could be on sale by 2020: Fruit laced with vitamin A begins human trials to tackle deficiency in Africa

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  • Queensland University of Technology project is trialling new bananas
  • Pro-vitamin A enriched fruit will be tested in U.S. volunteers for six weeks
  • The fruit will then be grown in fields across Uganda for three years
  • The goal is to have the ‘super bananas’ in regular production by 2020
  • Hope is the fruit can solve Vitamin A deficiency which kills 700,000 a year

The world’s first human trial of ‘super bananas’ will start soon in the hope of providing a more nutritious source of food to Ugandans and East Africans.
The bananas will be enriched in pro-vitamin A, which the human body can break down into ‘regular’ vitamin A, to tackle the consequences of vitamin A deficiency in the regions.
And, if the trial is successful, it’s hoped farmers could begin growing the enhanced food by 2020.

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) project is being led by Professor James Dale and is backed with up to £6 million ($10 million) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It is what is known as a biofortification project, which is the process of improving the nutritional value of crops by selective, or genetic engineering.

‘Human trial is a significant milestone for this project, which started in 2005 and should see pro-vitamin A enriched banana varieties being grown by Ugandan farmers around 2020,’ Professor Dale said.

The bananas have been harvested from the QUT field trial in Innisfail, north Queensland and transported to the U.S. for the world-first human trial.

Initial laboratory tests were performed at QUT in Brisbane and field trials in far north Queensland were conducted, with field trials in Uganda also set to begin alongside the human trials.
‘We know our science will work,’ Professor Dale said.
‘We made all the constructs, the genes that went into bananas, and put them into bananas here at QUT.
‘Hundreds of different permutations went into field trials up north and we tested everything to make sure our science worked here in Queensland.
‘Now the really high-performing genes have been taken to Uganda and have been put into field trials there.’

He said over the next three years an elite line of banana plants would be selected and used in multi-location field trials in Uganda.
Legislation to enable genetically modified crops to be commercialised in Uganda is currently in committee stage within the Ugandan parliament.
With Ugandan Government support, legislation and regulations to enable the commercialisation of genetically modified crops should be in place by 2020. Regulations enabling field trials of genetically-modified crops already exist.

Professor Dale said once approved in Uganda, there would be no reason why the same technology couldn’t be used to enrich crops in surrounding East African countries including Rwanda, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.

‘In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well,’ Professor Dale said.

‘This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in so doing lift the health and well-being of countless millions of people over generations.’

Professor Dale added the biggest challenge facing the project was purely one of logistics, going from a small-scale project to one on a national scale but the university was working in partnerships with a team of scientists in Uganda who would, over the coming years, be joined by five Ugandan PhD students currently working in Professor Dale’s team.


While the outside of the ‘super bananas’ will look just like any other banana, the inside will be different.
‘The banana flesh of a pro-vitamin A enriched banana is orange rather than the cream colour we are used to and in fact the greater the pro-vitamin A content the more orange the banana flesh becomes,’ lead researcher Professor Dale said.
‘We are aiming to increase the level of pro-vitamin A to a minimum level of 20 micrograms per gram dry weight in order to significantly improve the health status of African banana consumers.’
Vitamin A is typically found in cheese, eggs and yoghurt. Deficiency of the vitamin is common in poorer countries where access to these foods is limited.
Poorer countries also have higher levels of disease, which can be a drain on a body’s vitamin A reserves.
Symptoms include night blindness and the deficiency can make people more susceptible to other illnesses.

The human trial will last for six weeks with conclusive results known by the end of the year.
Professor Dale said previous U.S. trials using Mongolian gerbils had proven successful.


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