Eastern Africa

Scientists search for the golden banana to fight malnutrition

Banana breeders have joined in the efforts to address vitamin A deficiency in developing countries through developing  improved banana varieties with enhanced vitamin A, a process known as biofortification. Biofortification improves the nutritional quality of key staples by deliberately increasing the content of essential micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, of major staple crops through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology. It is an effective strategy to improve the nutrition of malnourished populations that lack access to diverse diets, food supplements or fortified food products. Ornge-fleshed Vitamin A enhanced maize, sweet potato and cassava have been developed and banana is not being left out.

This paper ‘Recent advances in banana (Musa spp.) biofortification to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, published in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition journal, summarizes the progress made across vaious banana breeding program in to biofortify banana to address vitamin A deficiency using  conventional breeding and transgenic approaches. The authors include IITA banana breeding team, Delphine Amah, Allan Brown, and Rony Swennen; Penelope Perkins-Veazie from North Carolina State University, USA; and  Maryke Labuschagne from University of the Free State, South Africa.

Vitamin A deficiency – leading cause of preventable blindness in children

Vitamin A is important for many bodily functions, including vision, immune system, reproduction and good skin health. Its deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. It also increases morbidity and mortality from severe infections such as malaria, diarrhea and measles due to anemia and weakened immune system and impaires cell development, growth and tissue function during childhood development, pregnancy and lactation. Vitamin A deficiency disproportionately affects low income populations in developing countries. It affects nearly half of African children and a fifth of pregnant women in low income countries.

Case for biofortified banana

Bananas are highly nutritious, rich in dietary fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins including A and C, minerals and other bioactive substances with useful antioxidant properties such as phenolics, carotenoids, flavonoids and biogenic amines. They are also grown throughout tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world including Africa and Asia where vitamin A deficiency is most prevalent. Some banana varieties are also known to be rich in provitamin A carotenoids (pVACs), providing an opportunity to use bananas as a readily available vehicle for provitamin A delivery.

The paper also reviewed research on Pro-Vitamin A retention and bioavailability following ripening and processing of banana and plantain, as essential components in successful banana biofortification efforts. Bioavailability was found to differ in different varieties with provitamin A increasing and reducing in some cases. The review concludes that the wide variability of pVACs reported in banana cultivars coupled with recent advances in unraveling the diversity and genetic improvement of this globally important but often-neglected staple fruit crop underscores their importance in biofortification schemes.

IITA vitamin A banana breeding

IITA which has the largest multi-countries banana breeding program in Africa is also working on vitamin A enhanced banana. Current activities involve diversity assessments on local and exotic material to identify varieties with significant pVAC contents. Selected adapted varieties with significant pVAC contents will be deployed for nutrition improvement while selected non-adapted varieties will be used as parental material for breeding.


For more information

Amah Delphine, Regional Breeding Manager, Plantain / Banana R4D, e-mail: D.Amah@cgiar.org

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