A vitamin-enhanced ‘super-banana’ developed by scientists is to be tested on humans. The trials are to take place in the US over a six-week period. Researchers aim to start growing the fruit in Uganda by 2020.
The bananas are ‘super’ because they have been genetically
engineered to have increased levels of vitamin A – a deficiency
of which can be fatal.
Hundreds of thousands die annually worldwide from vitamin A deficiencies, while many others go blind, the project's leader told AFP.
“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000-700,000 children worldwide dying...each year and at least another 300,000 going blind,” Professor James Dale stated.
“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,” Dale said.
The project was created by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We know our science will work,” Dale said. “We made all the constructs, the genes that went into bananas, and put them into bananas here at QUT.”
Dale added that the genetically modified banana flesh is more orange than a usual banana, but otherwise looks the same.
The highland or East African cooking banana is a dietary staple in East Africa, according to the researchers. However, it has low levels of micronutrients, particularly vitamin A and iron.
If the project is given the go-ahead for Uganda after the US trials, micronutrient enriched/modified crops could also be given the green light for Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania.
“In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well,” Dale stated.
In October, 93 international scientists said there was a lack of empirical and scientific evidence to support what they said were false claims made by the biotech industry about a so-called “consensus” on GMO safety. They said more independent research is needed, as existing studies which say that GMOs are safe are overwhelmingly funded and supported by biotech companies.
The Gates Foundation has a history of supporting GMO research and technology – at least since 2010, when the non-profit invested in a low amount of shares in biotechnology giant Monsanto. Gates has amped up support for GMOs so that “poor countries that have the toughest time feeding their people have a process,” adding that “there should be an open-mindedness, and if they can specifically prove [GMO] safety and benefits, foods should be approved, just like they are in middle-income countries.” Such support has resulted in criticism and suspicion of the foundation's agenda.
As for the worry that GMO seeds are increasingly consolidated in the hands of major agribusiness powers, Gates said in February 2013 – after his foundation reportedly sold the approximately $23 million in Monsanto shares it owned – that there are "legitimate issues, but solvable issues" with GMO technology and wider use. He added that one solution may be offering crops already patented but requiring no royalty dues.
Gates has supported the use of GMO crops in the developing world, as well as “large-scale farm land investments by foreign states in the developing world,” AFP wrote in 2012. Months ago, Gates stressed his support for GMO farming in Africa.
“Middle-income countries are the biggest users of GMOs...Small farmers have gotten soy beans and cotton and things like that. But we’re trying to get African agriculture up to high productivity – it’s about a third of rich-world productivity right now – and we need the full range of scientific innovation, with really good safety checking, to work on behalf of the poor,” Gates told Quartz in January.
GMO crops are now grown in 28 countries, or on 12 percent of the world's arable land, with the acreage doubling every five years. However, in the European Union, only two GMO varieties have so far been licensed for commercial harvesting (compared to 96 in the US).
In the US, an overwhelming majority of Americans say they support the labeling of GMO products – an effort that has gained traction in some states and interest in nearly all others.
Opponents of labeling – including powerful food industry and biotechnology players – are currently mobilizing their resources on the national level to stem the tide of sentiment against GMO proliferation. These groups have worked with supportive members of Congress to introduce federal legislation that would block states from passing mandatory GMO labeling measures like Vermont's, despite the “right to know” movement’s rising popularity.
GMOs have been in the food supply since the 1990s, and are included in roughly 70 to 80 percent of products available to American consumers, according to food manufacturers. The most widely used GMO crops in the US are corn, soybeans, and canola.