Despite ongoing controversy about the safety of GMO foods, human trials are about to begin on a genetically modified banana that has the potential to drastically reduce infant morality and malnutrition in Africa, reports the Independent.

The GMO banana, which was developed by Australian scientists and backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is a vitamin A-enriched version of a common East African cooking banana. Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to kill up to 700,000 children annually and causes about 300,000 cases of blindness globally each year, so the enriched banana has the potential to significantly impact public health for the better. This is especially the case in Africa, where as many as 70 percent of the population in some countries rely on cooked banana for the bulk of their nutrition.

Researchers are optimistic that human trials will be successful and that their genetically enhanced banana will go into commercial production in Uganda by 2020.

"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… We know our science will work," said professor James Dale, who is leading the nine-year banana project at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

Unlike common bananas, which have cream-colored flesh, the bioengineered banana has orange flesh due to its high content of beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A). Foods that are naturally high in beta-carotene, such as carrots, are also often orange in color.

A cheap and accessible source of vitamin A could do more than just decrease infant mortality and blindness. The vitamin has also been linked to immune system health, and there is evidence it is also important for brain development.

Critics of GMO foods have expressed some concerns about the super-bananas, however. The long term implications of genetically modified foods can be difficult to gauge, and critics point out that low-tech solutions, such as improved farming techniques and the provision of supplements, are cheaper, are better able to target individuals most at risk for vitamin deficiencies, and do not threaten crop diversity. 

"There is evidence that too much beta-carotene can be cancerous, so what happens when people who are not vitamin A-deficient eat this crop? There are more effective solutions to these issues such as targeted supplements and diversification of crops," said Dr. Helen Wallace of GeneWatch. "These trials have no way of establishing whether these changes are beneficial rather than harmful in the long term."

Nevertheless, if the human trials show no ill effects, the new crop should find its way into agricultural circulation in Uganda in six years. Other African countries, such as Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, could follow suit shortly thereafter.

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