In half of the world's countries, vitamin A deficiency is a scourge that leaves disease and death in its wake.
Every year, it inflicts between 250,000 and 500,000 helpless and malnourished young people with early-life blindness. And in half of those cases, it also brings death, according to the World Health Organization. Vitamin A deficiency also puts pregnant women at risk.
It's rare in developed countries, but the goal of completely eradicating vitamin A deficiency — mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia — remains unmet.
Scientists are now working to genetically engineer "super" bananas that are fortified with crucial alpha- and beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A.
"There is very good evidence that vitamin A deficiency leads to an impaired immune system and can even have an impact on brain development," Queensland University professor James Dale said in a news release. "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."
Some of the genetically modified cooking bananas are being sent to the United States for their first human trial; scientists aim to have them growing in Uganda by 2020.
The project is being backed by nearly $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
East African Highland bananas are usually chopped and steamed, but they have little in the way of nutrients -- especially vitamin A, according to Dale.
On the outside, the genetically modified crops essentially look the same as other East African Highland bananas; but on the inside, the carotene enrichment gives them an orange hue.
Lab tests in gerbils have been successful, and Dale is confident in his science. But in order for the crops to be planted in Uganda, the country's legislature has to approve a bill allowing genetically modified crops. It is currently in the committee phase.
Dale also believes that the technology can easily be replicated in other parts of Africa where different varieties of bananas or plantains are dietary staples.
"In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well," Dale said in his statement. "This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in so doing lift the health and well-being of countless millions of people over generations."