Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of childhood blindness and death worldwide. While rare in the developed world, it is a chronic and severe problem in many areas.
An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women is vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250 000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.
An effort to assist in increasing dietary vitamin A, without forcing people to radically change their diet or areas of agricultural expertise, has been a major goal for decades. There have been three major thrusts to achieve this goal.
- Small gardens that include vegetables high in Vitamin A
- Genetically modified plants (specifically rice)
All three are extremely important and act best when used in conjunction rather than aiming for a single magic solution.
Supplementation requires continual intervention, which can be problematic in some situations. Dietary improvements can reach more people and provide lifetime supplementation. The second has limitations in some areas due to many factors, including space, and the second has faced many political hurdles and manufactured controversies from those who are more concerned with their own agendas rather than the health of others. Many children are weaned onto a rice based diet that just can’t provide necessary nutrients.
Now, a group from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) project, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have developed bananas that have increased levels of vitamin A.
A super-enriched banana genetically engineered to improve the lives of millions of people in Africa will soon have its first human trial, which will test its effect on vitamin A levels, Australian researchers said Monday.
The project plans to have the special banana varieties—enriched with alpha and beta carotene which the body converts to vitamin A—growing in Uganda by 2020.
The bananas are now being sent to the United States, and it is expected that the six-week trial measuring how well they lift vitamin A levels in humans will begin soon.
“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,” said project leader Professor James Dale.
Much like rice, bananas are a staple food in some areas and low in certain nutrients. This is another product that can help provide some relief in areas where nutrient deficient diets are common. Again, despite the headline of it being a ‘super’ food, it is one component in providing health and life to millions of people.
In another recent improvement in banana production, the same team has modified a strain of bananas that is resistant to a fungus that threatens banana crops worldwide.
Much of the criticism of GMOs is levelled at the business practices of the companies that produce them exclusively for profit or the Argumentum ad Monsanto. However, these bananas and rice are developed with no restrictions whatsoever in seed production or ownership restrictions.
Are these products the sole answer to reducing Vitamin A deficient? No, but they are an important link in improving the diets of millions.
Stephanie Guttormson in her YouTube channel ThinkStephtically takes a hard look at some of the major arguments proliferated by those opposed to the science of genetically modification.
She won’t change the minds of true believers, but if you’ve heard their arguments and have some questions, her answers are straightforward and easy to understand.