Background and rationale

Biofortification is the development of nutrient-rich crops using either conventional or modern biotechnology approaches. Biotechnology is preferred over conventional breeding because it is faster, avoids massive changes in crop attributes and is the only approach available for enhancing the nutritional quality of sterile commercial banana cultivars.

NARO in collaboration with partners have been developing pro-vitamin A enriched cooking bananas to alleviate the problem of vitamin A deficiency (VAD). More than 3 out of 10 Ugandan children below 5 years of age are afflicted VAD and associated health complications. Even a greater proportion of women of child-bearing age are affected.

An individual with serum retinol less than 0.7µmol/l is classified at vitamin A deficient. People suffering from VAD usually experience night blindness which eventually progresses into preventable permanent blindness, and those individuals are at higher risks of contracting many tropical infectious diseases due to poor immunity. VAD kills more people than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Vitamin A is an essential micro nutrient which cannot be made by human or animal systems. It can only be obtained as supplements, or from fortified food and from natural foods in form of it’s intermediary, pro-vitamin A. Foods rich in pro-vitamin A include dark leafy vegetables, orange fleshed fruits, egg york, meat, liver and certain fishes. However due to economic, cultural and infrastructural difficulties, biofortification of staple crops has become a recent focus to reach undernourished populations in remote areas. Overreliance on banana as a staple food has been associated with high prevalence of VAD in Uganda.

Consequently, a phytoene synthase (MtPsy2a) gene isolated from a high pro-vitamin A-accumulating banana called Asupina was introduced into two Ugandan cooking bananas: Hybrid M9 and Nakitembe. More than 500 different banana lines containing the gene were assessed at a confined field trial (CFT) at Kawanda from 2014 to 2018. Based on yield performance, beta carotene equivalents (BCE) levels and molecular integrity, twelve elite lines were selected for final evaluation at different environments around the country.

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