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[KAMPALA] Bio-fortified bananas that could reduce blindness, diarrhoea and anaemia are a step closer, according to the preliminary results of a joint research project between Ugandan and Australian scientists.

Genetically modified (GM) bananas containing genes to boost their vitamin A and iron content have been planted in Australia and Uganda over the past two years (2009–2010). The first harvest from Australia shows promising results, according to the researchers from the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) in Uganda and Australia's Queensland University of Technology.

But it may be another five years of research before the improved banana cultivars — Nakinyik matooke (for cooking) and Sukaali ndizi (sweet banana) — are ready for commercial planting, said the team.

Vitamin A and iron deficiencies are major public health problems in Uganda, affecting mostly children and women, according to Andrew Kiggundu, head of banana biotechnology research at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories Institute in Kawanda, Uganda.

"For the majority of the rural population who don't have access to fortified foods, the best way to address vitamin A and iron deficiency is by carrying out bio-engineering on the plants they depend on," Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, programme leader at NARO's National Banana Research Program, told SciDev.Net.

"The soybean gene, ferritin, has been inserted in banana cells to make a protein that enhances the iron storage in banana fruit pulp," said Geoffrey Arinaitwe, one of the principal investigators on the project.

"Other genes inserted are from yellow maize and the Asupina banana cultivar from South-East Asian islands; they are very rich in pro-vitamin A carotenoid that is converted into vitamin A by our body," Arinaitwe said. "Both genes are good and safe since they are from plants that are ordinarily part of human food."

He noted that this is the first time that GM banana crops have reached the 'confined field trials' stage in Africa. Kiggundu said that Uganda currently has no law that regulates the planting of GM crops as required by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, to which the country is a signatory.

"There is a biosafety and biotechnology policy that is being debated in Uganda that will provide a regulatory pathway for commercialisation after the field trials are completed," said José Falck-Zepeda, a research fellow in biosafety at the International Food Policy Research Institute in the United States.

But Uganda is yet to define if and how these GM bananas will be approved to be grown commercially there, he said.