Professor James Dale in his Brisbane lab with a the genetically modified banana. (Supplied: QUT)
Bananas genetically modified by Queensland researchers to be vitamin A-enriched are being grown in Uganda, in a breakthrough hoped to save the lives of thousands of east African children.
After more than a decade of development, the first crop has been produced in Uganda using the local variety of cooking banana.
“We are getting over four times our target level [of vitamin A] so we are very happy about that,” researcher Professor James Dale said.
Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, an impaired immune system, and can impact brain development.
While it is becoming less of an issue in most parts of the world, Professor Dale said it was getting worse in Africa.
The highland or east African cooking banana, which is chopped and steamed, is a staple of many east African nations but has low levels of micronutrients, particularly pro-vitamin A and iron.
Researcher Jean-Yves Paul said up to 700,000 children died world-wide as a result of vitamin A deficiency each year, and those in rural areas were the worst affected.
Cooking banana is often eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in parts of east Africa. (Supplied: QUT)
He said bananas were the perfect fruit to lift those vitamin A and iron levels.
“The word food in Uganda, matoke, means banana,” he said.
Bananas trialled in north Queensland first
Wilberforce Kateera Tushemereirwe is also working on the project in his role with the National Agricultural Research Organisation.
Speaking from Uganda, he said the technology worked on Cavendish bananas in Australia and had begun to work on African varieties.
“It is a very important project to the country,” Dr Tushemereirwe said.
The trial field in Uganda, which has produced the first fruit of the genetically modified banana. (Supplied: QUT)
Genetic modifications were tested on the Cavendish banana in far north Queensland before the project was migrated to Africa.
During testing, researchers were concerned about a potential loss of pro-vitamin A over generations of crops but were thrilled it did not happen.
“Over five generations we’ve been able to maintain the level of pro-vitamin A and, in some instances, increase it over time which is really exciting,” Professor Dale said.
The fruit will not be available to eat in Uganda for another six years as it goes through regulatory testing.
Professor Dale with the banana crop he hopes will prevent vitamin A deficiency. (Supplied: QUT)
Professor Dale said he did not expect to see an impact on locals until 2025.
“We’ll almost certainly be able to select what we call our ‘elite line’ and this is the line that will go through the regulatory process and finally be approved for farmers,” he said.
“If we start to see … suddenly that level of vitamin A deficiency coming down, that’s what we want to see.”
The $10 million project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.