When you think of a banana, you more than likely think of something sweet, which you may have at the end of a meal or possibly as a in-between fill-me-up snack.
But in many parts of Africa, bananas are not consumed as snack food – they are REAL food. In fact, this is pretty much the main food consumed by these communities, who don’t eat more traditional staple foods such as maize and rice.
The plantain banana is not terribly sweet, but starchy, it is eaten fried or ground into “banana” flour for baking and cooking etc. That is me tucking into a plantain breakfast in Mali.
They taste pretty good, but living more-or-less exclusively on banana has one big problem. Banana doesn’t contain enough vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness
Vitamin A is involved in a range of chemical reactions, but it’s big claim to fame, is that it is a component of a special pigment, rhodopsin, in the eye. This pigment “lights up” when light falls on the retina and creates the electrical signals that ultimately allow us to see.
When there is shortage of vitamin A, the ability to see is impeded. Initially the problem only manifests at night – so the person has difficulty seeing in low light.
Night blindness is easily fixed, if the eye is supplied with adequate amounts of vitamin A. Unfortunately, in diets lacking vitamin A, this doesn’t happen. The vision problems escalate, ultimately leading to total blindness and sometimes death.
Because bananas are low on vitamin A – this is a big problem for communities who rely on bananas as their primary food source.
Too much vitamin A just as bad as too little
One way to solve vitamin deficiencies is to take a supplement.
But supplements are too expensive for these communities, plus, too much vitamin A is just as bad as too little, so handing out vitamin A pills is not the best way to solve the problem.
NOTE : Shortages of vitamin A are uncommon in the Western world, so it is unlikely that you will need to take extra, in fact, you need to be a little cautious that you aren’t taking too much. Avoid vitamin supplements with added retinyl acetate or retinyl palmitate – overtime you will overload yourself with vitamin A, which could lead to liver toxicity.
Add yellow vegetables to the menu
Munching “yellow” vegetables and fruits, such as carrots and squashes, is how mother nature intends for us to get our vitamin A supply.
The yellow pigments, known as carotenoids, give us a healthy glow. When we eat them, they are processed by the enzyme carotenoid monooxygenase, which is located in the intestine. This enzyme is able to extract all the vitamin A your body needs from the vegetables – but if you don’t need it, it just passes out.
So adding yellow vegetables to the diet of these communities, would solve the problem.
But adding “new” foods to plates is not easy. People don’t like change. Adding new foods would require adopting new farming techniques, as well as embracing different tastes and flavours.
Science to the rescue
The obvious way to help avoid blindness in these communities, is to add those yellow pigment to bananas.
Yellow bananas might look a little odd, but the same agricultural and cooking methods would be used and because the body knows when you’ve had enough, there would be no risk of vitamin A toxicity.
The reason carrots and squashes make carotenoids, is because they carry inside them the recipe to synthesize the pigment.
If a plant has the recipe in its genes, it produces the yellow pigment, if not, it doesn’t.
Using the tools and techniques of modern biotechnology, scientists from Australia have been able to “teach” bananas growing in laboratories in Australia, how to make carotenoid pigments.
These very “clever” bananas, have the same chemical composition as standard bananas, they taste just like standard bananas, but instead of being lily white, they are a fetching yellow colour.
Ugandan scientists bring the technology to Africa
The need for vitamin loaded bananas in Australia is not big, but for the banana munching communities of Africa – these bananas could save eyes, as well as lives.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has helped to bring this technology to the communities that need it the most. African scientists have already begun painting the plantain bananas yellow.
It will still be some time before yellow bananas make it to the dinner plates of Ugandans.
Scientists will do lots of tests, to ensure that these very special bananas are safe for people, animals and the environment, but this genetically modified food will be lighting up eyes in Africa for decades to come.Presentation by Prof James Dale from Queensland University of Technology, Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, Australia at Moving Towards a Bioeconomy Conference from 6-9 September 2011, Sandton Conventional Centre, Johannesburg. Conference was hosted by AfricaBio and Gauteng Provincial Government
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