Aussie project to give Uganda's staple dish vitamin boost

Matooke is the staple dish of the east African nation of Uganda. (Michele Sibiloni)

A new project to enrich bananas with more vitamins could be a groundbreaking for Uganda, the world’s biggest consumer of bananas. But not everyone is happy, writes Amy Fallon.

It may be a stable country with a growing middle class and an economy reliant on exporting a number of different products.

But Uganda, at least in the literal sense of the term, may still be considered a “banana republic” – or as t-shirts sold in one upmarket Kampala mall declare, a “matooke republic”.

Made from peeled green plantain cooked in water or steamed in banana leaves, matooke is the staple dish of the east African nation. Served with groundnut sauce, meat, or vegetables, it’s lapped up by locals and foreigners, but is said to contain almost no protein and is low on fibre.

The Ministry of Health in Uganda, the country that is the globe’s largest consumer of bananas, with the fruit constituting about 20 percent of caloric intake, has identified three micronutrients as being important for the wellbeing of all, but especially young children and mothers: iron, zinc, and, Vitamin A.

“But the bananas are deficient in those so you can’t get those three when you’re feeding on bananas,” Professor Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, the Director of National Agricultural Research Laboratories at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) in Kawanda, about 13km outside Uganda’s capital Kampala, tells SBS.

“If you eat what you buy from a store, the flour can be fortified, the micronutrients added.

“In rural areas where people eat what they produce that is difficult.”

Through a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) project, which has involved field trial in Innisfail, north Queensland, and Uganda, the world’s first pro-vitamin A-enriched banana varieties could be grown and consumed by Ugandans by about 2020.

In mid-June, Australian researchers said the bananas, grown in QLD, were being sent to the US for a six-week human trial, the world’s first, with results hopefully known by the end of the year. Volunteers in Iowa have reportedly been receiving about $979 AUD apiece by giving blood samples after eating them.

"There is very good evidence that vitamin A deficiency leads to an impaired immune system and can even have an impact on brain development,” says Australian James Dale, a Distinguished Professor leading the research.

"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."

The engineered crops could also provide a solution to the highly destructive “black leaf streak” (black sigatoka) disease, which kills off the leaves of the plant, and banana wilt, which kills off the whole plant. Both spread easily across Uganda.

"These crooks (the gene tech multi-national companies) want to own our bananas under the guise of adding Vitamin A to it."

Other bananas developed will have increased amounts of zinc and iron, Tushemereirwe says. GMO maize, cotton, potatoes and rice crops are also currently undergoing field trials in Uganda

But not in everyone in conservative and God-fearing Uganda is happy about the “super” banana, or the law that needs to be approved by the parliament and president before the banana can be developed and distributed.

In the past couple of weeks, debate has raged again between MPs, scientists and civil society members over the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, which in its current form provides a “mechanism to regulate research, development and general release of genetically modified organisms and for related matters”.

“GMOs are just bringing more diseases like cancer to people at the interest of GMO investors,” insists Muddu Yisito Kayinga.

Born and raised by a mother who taught him the tools of the trade, the 28-year-old has been a subsistence farmer in Kyanukuzi village in Masaka, central Uganda, for the last 15 years

“Uganda is an agricultural country, especially the Masaka region where I’m based, with its own crops and food varieties that have provided citizens with enough food for decades,” says Kayinga, who’s identified at least 19 different types of bananas.

"I recommend Ugandans stick to their local and traditional food varieties attached to their localities and culture."

Betty Aguti, a policy and advocacy specialist with Caritas Uganda, a vocal opponent of GMOs in Uganda, warns that an alternative law, banning the promotion of modified crops, is being drafted with the help of a soil biophysicist from Kampala’s Makerere University. Civil society organisations and others will also rally Catholic and Anglican bishops to get them onside, says Aguti. She says she is “tempted to believe” that Ugandan researchers are “really out there to get rid of humanity”.

“Why of all God’s creations would one choose to use man as an experiment species? For heaven’s sake!” she said.

“This is an abomination.”

Ellady Muyambi, Secretary General of the Uganda Network on Toxic Free Malaria Control, says in the event the Bill is passed in its current form, the organisation was ready to lobby the president.

“These crooks (the gene tech multi-national companies) want to own our bananas under the guise of adding Vitamin A to it,” he says.

“They are doing everything possible within their means to directly enslave us again.”

But Professor Tushemereirwe says just as the results of the "routine" US trial will prove the project's science works, the law will be passed and assented to “because the government supports what are doing and they fund it”, and many others in the country back GMOs.

“You meet some people in town here, they have nothing to do with the rural people so they wonder why we should have that type of banana,” the scientist says.

“(But) even when you do conventional breeding you are still changing things so I am not worried.

“I am more worried when my relatives upcountry are dying of diseases which are easily controlled using some of these products but they can’t access them.”

Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist.