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Could A Genetically-Modified Vegetable Feed Africa?

Cassava, which is also known as yuca, might not be on the table frequently in the United States, but in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s an essential food. The root vegetable has a sweet, nutty taste with a potato-like texture. Like the potato, it can be boiled, mashed, or fried into chips, like you see in the image above. Dried and ground up, it can be made into a flour. The leaves are also edible. For ⅓ of the people in this area, cassava makes up 50% of their caloric intake. However, the plant lacks essential nutrients. Could modifying the veggie’s genes make it healthier?

Cassava, fresh from the ground 

In their natural state, cassava only contains about 10% of the daily recommendation for iron and zinc. This has resulted in very high deficiencies in the communities that rely on them. In Nigeria alone, 75% of preschool kids and 67% of pregnant women are anemic. As for zinc, not having enough can disrupt cognitive development and increase a person’s risk of death from diarrhea. Genetic engineers believe they can solve the problem by upgrading the content of iron and zinc in cassava.

The research appeared in “Nature,” a scientific journal, and explained how a team at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center spliced two genes from thale cress, a small flowering plant, into cassava. These two genes consist of an iron transport and iron storage protein, and once they’re in cassava, they change how much iron and zinc the plant holds. In the study, researchers believe eating this fortified cassava could give kids 1-6 years old up to 50% of their requirement for iron and up to 70% for zinc.

This isn’t the first time scientists have experimented with cassava. In 2006,  plants were genetically-modified to produce larger roots and more leaves, which are both edible. A gene from E.coli was responsible for the change, which averaged a 2.6 bigger root than non-modified cassavas. Genetically-modified food often gets a bad rap, but the example of the cassava demonstrates just how valuable the science can be.