There are several approaches to addressing vitamin A deficiency (supplements, food fortification, dietary diversity, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes) that are proven to be effective. Why do we need more nutritious bananas?
It is true that other approaches are reducing vitamin A deficiency in important ways and those should continue to be supported. Here is why we think more nutritious bananas can build on those approaches and provide further benefits:
First, millions of women and children in Uganda alone have not been sufficiently helped by other approaches.
Even with all the good impacts of other approaches, there are still areas and groups of people where vitamin A deficiency persists.
In Uganda, 38 percent of children age 6-59 months, and 36 percent of women age 15-49 have vitamin A deficiency.
These percentages translate to millions of people who remain in need of better nutrition.
No other food in Uganda has the reach of bananas, so making them more nutritious can have a huge impact.
Many Ugandans eat bananas every day, throughout the year, averaging 400 kilograms (880 pounds) per person consumption annually.
According to IFPRI, “Bananas and plantains have long been the most important food source of calories available to Ugandans. In 2007, these accounted for 17 percent of total daily per capita caloric food availability, as a single most important source of calories among Ugandans.”
Our Banana21 vision is to develop banana plants that have higher levels of both pro-vitamin A and iron, addressing two important micronutrient deficiencies at once in a staple food crop.
A recent analysis of the costs and potential benefits to develop more nutritious bananas determined that it is a ‘very cost-effective’ health intervention, according to criteria established by the World Health Organization and the World Bank.
Improved banana plants can be a consistent, locally-produced and affordable source of good nutrition.
Nutritious bananas will not require any ongoing additional cost to the farmer or household.
Nutritious bananas can be produced throughout the year, year after year.
Nutritious bananas can be grown and consumed within the community.
The success of supplements relies on effective distribution to every child, twice per year, which can be costly and require significant coordination. Fortified foods, such as flour and oil, depend on production, distribution and affordable availability.
Ultimately, our development of more nutritious bananas is meant to complement other approaches to micronutrient malnutrition, to work together to try to address the persistent public health challenges of vitamin A deficiency.
Fiedler, John L., Kikulwe, Enoch M. and Birol, Ekin. (2013) An Ex Ante Analysis of the Impact and Cost-Effectiveness of Biofortified High-Provitamin A and High-Iron Banana in Uganda. IFPRI Discussion Paper 01277. International Food Policy Research Institute. Available online.
Are there bananas naturally high in these nutrients? Why are you making GM?
The pro-vitamin A cooking banana is being developed using a gene from another variety of banana, called ‘Asupina’ that has relatively high pro-vitamin A content.
However, ‘Asupina’ is not suitable for the growing conditions, cooking methods and farmer expectations in Uganda and the rest of East Africa, as it produces only small bunches of fruit.
Because cultivated bananas, including ‘Asupina’ and East African cooking banana varieties, are mostly sterile, transferring a trait from one variety into another is extremely difficult using conventional breeding. Therefore, the pro-vitamin A cooking banana is being developed in Uganda with the tools of genetic modification and other techniques of modern biotechnology, including tissue culture.
What safety studies have been completed on the pro-vitamin A banana? How safe is it to consume?
As with other genetically-modified food crops, pro-vitamin A banana is undergoing rigorous evaluation for food and environmental safety, conforming to international regulatory standards.
The gene responsible for the increased levels of pro-vitamin A is from another variety of banana. This banana is a traditional variety that has been commonly consumed.
Pro-vitamin A in foods has a long history of safety. The pro-vitamin A carotenoids produced in the new banana are both alpha- and beta-carotene. Alpha-carotene and beta-carotene are found in many nutritious vegetables and fruits.
Consuming pro-vitamin A in food does not lead to an excess of vitamin A in the body. The body regulates the conversion of pro-vitamin A to vitamin A according to the body’s needs.
Pro-vitamin A bananas have been and will continue to be screened for safety, including potential allergic and toxic properties, following international guidelines for evaluation of GM crops (e.g., FAO/WHO Codex Guideline for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA Plants).
The pro-vitamin A banana would be available to consumers only after food and environmental safety data has been fully reviewed and it is authorized by regulatory bodies in Uganda.
Is the banana being patented? If so, who owns the patents? What is the source of the genes in the high pro-vitamin A cooking banana?
The source of the APsy2a gene that produces pro-vitamin A in the improved cooking banana is a cultivar called ‘Asupina’. It is native to the island of New Guinea, in the Pacific region.
The ‘Asupina’ and other banana cultivars were collected from Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1988-89, led by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) and the Queensland (Australia) Department of Primary Industries (QDPI), in co-operation with the PNG Department of Agriculture and Livestock. The collected material was brought to QDPI in Australia for disease indexing, identification and evaluation. Clean material was returned to Papua New Guinea to establish in their National Banana Germplasm Collection at Laloki.
In 1994, the material collected in Papua New Guinea became part of an International network of Ex Situ Collections under the auspices of the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). It continues to be available to all on the understanding that it remains in the public domain.
Several years later, researchers assessed the pro-vitamin A content of ten banana cultivars growing in Australia with yellow or yellow/orange flesh color for their potential use in addressing vitamin A deficiency. Among these was the ‘Asupina’ originally collected in Papua New Guinea, which was found to have high levels of pro-vitamin A, according to research published in 2006.
Banana21 researchers isolated the APsy2a gene from ‘Asupina’ growing in Australia in 2010-11, and after comparing it with other genes from other sources, determined that it was effective at increasing pro-vitamin A content. Subsequently the pro-vitamin A trait construct (gene and associated promoters) has been transferred to Uganda’s National Agriculture Research Organization, where it has been successfully incorporated into local cultivars of cooking banana.
No patents, breeders/variety rights, or commercial rights have been or will be claimed on the pro-vitamin A genes or trait. There will be no technology fees associated with applying the technology in Uganda or elsewhere, nor will there be any additional cost to farmers.
- Vitamin A in bananas: http://www.promusa.org/Vitamin+A+in+banana
- Asupina: http://www.promusa.org/Asupina
Carotenoid content and flesh color of selected banana cultivars growing in Australia. Englberger, Lois; Wills, Ron B. H.; Blades, Barbara; Dufficy, Lisa; Daniells, Jeff W.; Coyne, Terry. Food & Nutrition Bulletin, Volume 27, Number 4, December 2006, pp. 281-291(11). Full study download here.
Isolation and functional characterization of banana phytoene synthase genes as potential cisgenes. Mlalazi, B. et al. Planta (2012) 236: 1585-1598.
What is the current status of the project?
Pro-vitamin A cooking bananas are under development and evaluation. Current activities include laboratory work, field trials in Uganda and Australia and an independent nutrition study in the US.
Ongoing research and development: NARO scientists are currently inserting the pro-vitamin A trait into the M9 hybrid and East African Highland bananas (also known as matooke), both of which are popular cooking bananas. This process involves genetic modification, tissue culture and screen house plantings.
Safety: As with other genetically-modified food crops, the bananas are undergoing rigorous evaluation for food and environmental safety in line with international regulatory standards.
Field trials of pro-vitamin A Cavendish bananas have been growing in Australia since 2009. The long-term performance of these plants is being monitored. They have also produced fruit for the nutrition study.
A confined field trial of pro-vitamin A M9 and East African Highland bananas is ongoing in Uganda. Plants are being monitored for agronomic performance. Fruit will be analyzed for pro-vitamin A content.
Nutrition researchers from Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition are conducting a study to determine the extent to which the pro-vitamin A in the bananas is released during digestion and thus available to be absorbed and converted to vitamin A. When the study is completed and data analyzed, it will be published.
Once all research, development and evaluation work is completed, perhaps in 2021, the pro-vitamin A banana varieties would be thoroughly reviewed and authorized by regulatory bodies in Uganda before being available to farmers and consumers.