Genetically-engineered 'super bananas' could save millions of lives in Africa

Super bananas to the rescue!

Australian scientists announced this week that they are starting human clinical trials of a new genetically-modified version of the popular fruit that promises to help fight the battle of vitamin A deficiency ravaging many developing countries.

The souped-up bananas look normal on the outside but have orange-hued flesh because they are fortified with carotene, which the human body naturally converts to much-needed vitamin A.

Vitamin A deficiency afflicts up to 250 million pre-school children worldwide and is directly linked to deaths of up to 700,000 annually. It is the leading cause of preventable blindness and affects half of the world's countries, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 falling victim and becoming blind ever year, according to the World Health Organization.

"There is very good evidence that vitamin A deficiency leads to an impaired immune system and can even have an impact on brain development," said project leader James Dale of Queensland University in Australia, in a press statement.

The hope now is that the genetically-engineered strain of bananas, one of the staple foods in the East African country of Uganda, will massively improve the health of this nutrient-deficient population.

"Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food," Dale said.

Creating super foods by genetically-engineering – or merging DNA from different species  is obviously not without controversy.

But in North America, the fact is that we've been munching on genetically-modified foods since the early 1990's when 'enhanced' soy bean and tomato varieties were first introduced. Today we have genetically engineered crops in Canada that include corn, sugar beets and canola.

When it comes to GM crops it's a popular misconception that they are modified for better taste. In reality they are tailored specifically to be more resistant to certain herbicides, viral infections and insect pests.

One of the big promises with modified crops has been that they would lower incidences of hunger in developing countries because local farmers would be able to plant hardier crops that would produce much higher yields at lower costs.

However, pesticide-resistant bugs and weeds have emerged, forcing some farmers to spend more on chemicals to protect their crops.

And of course the case for genetically modified meat has yet to be made Not that the technology doesn't exist. After all, we can now grow burgers in a lab. Even though many farm animals have been chemically 'enhanced' to increase meat production for a long time, these new engineered species might not be all that appealing to the public at large.

In the meantime, if Professor Dale has it his way the super bananas will be growing in African soil by 2020 and plans are in the works to have the crop growing across Africa in countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

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