Vitamin A and Iron rich banana under trial in Uganda
Peter Wamboga, Scifode
A biotechnology-based research for bananas enriched with Vitamin A, Iron and for varieties resistant to the evastating banana bacterial wilt (BXW), should be prioritized in passing a National Biotechnology and Biosafety law, stakeholders in agricultural modernization have demanded. Based on the information they received during a workshop at Kawempe near Kampala and from a tour of Vit. A and Iron-enriched bananas currently in a confined field trial (CFT), at NARL, Kawanda—the diversity of stakeholders asked the Government to prioritize expeditious processing of the biosafety law, as research was already showing exciting opportunities.
Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, head of the National Agro-Biotechnology Centre (NABC) at the Kawanda-based National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL), a key constituent institute of NARO, said that ongoing biotechnology-based research—of which he was part—had prioritized saving staple crops from virulent pests such as: weevils,nematodes and diseases like: banana bacterial wilt (BBW, and fungal black sigatoka also in bananas, cassava mosaic and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) in cassava; and the sweet potatoes virus disease.
“This research is by Ugandan scientists and is at confined field trial (CFT) stages at NABC, Kawanda (bananas) and at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), Namulonge—for cassava and sweet potatoes. We’re determined to provide resistant lines against these serious constraints using biotechnology. But unless the draft bill is passed into law, technology from this useful research cannot get to would-be beneficiaries,” Kiggundu said, while responding to questions from the diversity of stakeholders who included local leaders; representatives from National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE); Uganda National Farmers’ Federation (UNFFE); faith-based organisations; the ministries of Tourism, Trade and Industry, Agriculture, Water and Environment, local seed breeders, rural farmers and the media.
These stakeholders’ sentiments for enacting of a biotech law, were also voiced after they toured the NABC laboratory, the Biosafety Level II greenhouses and the confined field trials (CFT) site for genetically-modified bananas: sukali ndizi (apple banana) which is a dessert and nakyinyika (a cooking banana)—both bearing Vitamin A and Iron micronutrients, which are already expressing signs of integration of the two micronutrients, especially in the leaves. The workshop held
at Tick Hotel, Kawempe—north of Kampala city, was sponsored by the Strengthening Agricultural Biotechnology Management in Sub-Saharan Africa (SABIMA) project of the Forum on Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) being implemented by the National Agricultural Organisation (NARO) in Uganda.
Leaves in the sukali ndizi—a popular sweet banana variety, are showing strong presence of an orange-like colour, a
sign which scientists use to determine visual presence of Vitamin A—via the betacarotene genes extracted from
maize and a wild Asian banana called Asupina, which is very rich in Vitamin A.
Dr. Geoffrey Arinaitwe, the Trial Manager of this banana bio-fortification project at NARL told the visitors to the
CFT site that leaves in any plant conduct photosynthesis (processing food for the plant using sunlight enegy) and it’s
from here that plant-food is sent to other parts, such as the fruit (pulp) in bananas. “Similarly when we see beta
carotene expression in the leaves we quickly know that it will be sent to the pulp (banana fingers) which human beings
eat,” explained Dr Arinaitwe, a molecular scientist. The ongoing experiment is the first of the kind in a developing
country. “What we see this year is clearly that the gene we inserted promoting vitamin A has got fully integrated
and it is a positive development. It is exciting to us because it’s the first indicator that the genes are working.
This is what we wanted and it is called geneexpression.
After that, the next thing we expect is expression of the same pro-vitamin A in the pulp (banana fingers). We shall
only confirm this when bunches [now forming] finally mature and we open them up for examination.” Solvents used in the testing of plants for vitamin and iron micronutrients’ presence, have been ordered by NARL to arrive in the country, in time for the GM bananas’ maturing stage.
Dr. Arinaitwe—who in 2004 transformed a gros michel (bogoya) banana with rice chitinase genes for resistance
to fungal black sigatoka disease—reveals that the pro-iron promoters in nakinyika bananas were extracted from soya
beans (the protein and iron rich leguminous crop).
The first research of the kind in the world involving transfer of pro-vitamin A and iron genes into bananas, was
conducted in Australia in 2007-8 by scientists at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The research was led
by Prof. James Dale as Principal Investigator who tested cavendish—bananas closely-related to bogoya. NARL’s GM
sukali ndizi and GM nakinyika—both containing genes for enhanced Vit. A and iron, are first being grown in a CFT as a
requirement under the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety— an international law regulating GMOs for safety to humans
and the environment to which Uganda is signatory.
Dr. Arinaitwe says the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology
(UNCST) gave NARO/NARL permission to undertake this cutting-edge research mid-2010, led by Prof. Wilberforce
Tushemereirwe (Principal Investigator) and Head Banana Research Team in NARO. “It’s the same pro-vitamin A genes
used in bio-fortification of golden rice in Asia that we have used in biofortifying our bananas,” Dr. Arinaitwe explains, adding that they are vital in the fight against blindness in children, due to Vit. A Deficiency (VAD).
Meanwhile Iron deficiency in humans leads to anaemia—a state of poor blood levels in the body, with dire consequences particularly to pregnant women.
Both cases lead to hundreds of deaths of blind children and anaemic pregnant women in Uganda.
According to another NARL molecular scientist specializing in bananas, Dr Andrew Kiggundu, severe vitamin A deficiency was identified in 31 out of 36 Ugandan districts surveyed in 1994. …“and in 1999, it was concluded that more than 50% of children consumed inadequate vit-A…… Like Vit-A deficiency, iron-deficiency is a major public health problem and is common in both women and children. For example in early 1990s in eastern Uganda, 40% of children less than 5 years old had Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA). In 1998, IDA was recognized in approximately 50% of pregnant women and about 30% of maternal deaths were attributable to IDA……,” adds Dr. Kiggundu.
The highly-anticipated Vit. A and Iron-biofortified banana (enriching) project is funded by American philanthropist—Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under its Grand Challenges program. It aims at providing a dietary fortification of staple foods, as an option to Vit-A and Iron-rich capsules distributed through the national health system.
Principal Investigator, Prof. Tushemereirwe says their research is well-intended to provide Ugandans with a more beneficial staple banana crop for both farmers/ traders and consumers. “We’re the key stakeholders in this project as we scientists also consume bananas like the rest of the people. Therefore, what we shall come up with is a safe product both to humans and the environment,”
Tushemereirwe told a contingency of visitors to NARL from civil society, the media and NGO activists. “In fact, he added, we’ve asked government for permission to eat the first GM bananas from here, before anybody else eats
them. We want to demonstrate to the world, the high level of confidence we have in the food from crops we have
genetically-modified here, that it is as safe as any other banana”. He added.
agroresearch by global and African bodies, such as NEPAD’s Bio-Sciences for Eastern and Central Africa Network (BecANet) that has sponsored Rwandan, Burundi, Congolese and Ugandan graduate students to study biotechnology
at the National Agro-Biotech Centre (NABC), at NARL, Kawanda.
Beta-carotene (pro-Vitamin A), is the pre-curser of vitamin A in animals, including humans. It is a naturally occurring
chemical and dietary intake is the primary source and most important source of vitamin A for humans. Vitamin
A plays very many crucial roles in humans including supporting vision, boosting immunity, reproduction, as an
anti-oxidant, and in development of various body tissues and organs. A deficiency in Vitamin A causes blindness,
stunting and in severe cases, death in children as well as maternal mortality among expectant mothers. Deficiency
in iron (Fe) causes the most common form of anaemia in the world as the nutrient is a major component of red
blood cells and these cells cannot be formed without sufficient quantities of the nutrient in the body. In Uganda and in other developing countries, vitamin A and Fe deficiencies are commonly compounded, further worsening the situation. Fighting these two problems will go a long way in achieving the Millennium Development Goals of reducing Maternal Mortality and reducing Child Mortality.