A paper presented at the conference of the Home Economics Institute of Australia, 11-13 January 2017, Melbourne, Australia.
We have heard variations on the following story for decades: Africans, especially children, are malnourished, sick and dying from a lack of Vitamin A. Hope comes from Australian scientists developing a GM banana that is high in beta carotene. Our bodies can make this into Vitamin A and so the problem of illness will be solved, or will it? Is the lack of GM bananas the root of malnourishment in Africa? Or could we be misreading both the problem and the solution?
Non-GM bananas high in beta carotene have existed for centuries. These bananas were rediscovered in the early 2000s by the late Lois Englberger, a researcher at the University of Queensland. She helped reintroduce these bananas, as well as other local foods, into the diet. They had been displaced by imported rice and processed food which people thought more prestigious to eat – and the introduction of this more Westernized diet had caused Vitamin A deficiency. Reestablishing local foods restored a nutrient dense, healthy diet in Micronesia. (World Public Health Nutrition Association, 2016). Many other countries in the Asia Pacific, East Africa and South America also have red bananas that are likely to be high in beta carotene.
Professor Dale and his team at the Queensland University of Technology have received $12 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop GM bananas high in beta carotene (ABC news, 2014). Professor Dale has used a gene from the Asupina Fe’i banana from Papua New Guinea that is high in beta carotene and red in colour (Mlalazi, et al., 2012). Asupina Fe’i bananas have been cultivated by farmers for centuries. As noted by Breasley and Tickell (2014), Professor Dale’s use of their genes could be seen as biopiracy, a form of genetic theft.
Issues associated with the current development of GM bananas - Manipulating the bananas Australians, not Africans, eat.
Professor Dale used the Cavendish banana for the vast majority of his experiments, the rest are Lady Finger bananas. (Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, 2011, p9). The Cavendish banana dominates Australia’s export markets and Lady Finger is the next most popular export. The question must be asked why modify bananas eaten by Westerners rather than one of the 95 banana varieties grown by Ugandan farmers? (Edmeades, Smale,& Karamura, 2006)? Could the banana high in beta carotene be a way of persuading Western consumers GM foods could be beneficial for them and thereby lessen consumer rejection?
The majority of bananas in Uganda are eaten cooked, not raw. Professor Dale’s project is collaborating with the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in Uganda (Banana21, 2016) to develop a GM cooking banana. However there is little information available on this project. The researchers state that the research will be influenced by the results of feeding trials carried out on students from the University of Iowa.
Creating conditions for new pathogens and diseases to emerge
Professor Dale has been granted a license to field-trial GM Cavendish bananas that have been manipulated for disease resistance in the Northern Territory in January 2017. (Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, 2012). Commercial banana plantations are monocrops, huge fields of the same plant. They become breeding grounds for pests and diseases due to the lack of diversity and are currently under threat from a fungal disease called “Tropical Race 4” (TR4). Even if the GM banana can be made resistant to TR4, the current practice of growing monocultures of bananas will inevitably create the conditions for new pathogens and diseases to emerge. (ABC News, 2015). GM disease-resistant bananas are a short-term solution at best. In contrast, banana growers in Uganda traditionally grow as many as 23 different banana varieties, as well as other crops like vegetables, herbs and fruit in their gardens. This not only provides a more varied diet but also reduces the likelihood of pests and disease (Edmeades. Smale, &Karamura, 2006).
Tested on Mongolian gerbils and Iowa State University students?
Uproar ensued when news of human feeding trials on University of Iowa students went public in 2014. The African Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) (2014) released an open letter objecting to the trials. They were concerned about safety, the design of the trial, whether it was relevant to Africans and that GM bananas promote a limited diet that is the root cause of Vitamin A deficiency. Representatives from 127 groups from around the world signed the letter (disclosure: MADGE Australia Inc., which I co-founded, was one of them). A petition of 57,000 signatures expressing concern about the GM feeding trials was presented to the University of Iowa, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Queensland University of Technology. (Galvis, 2016; Seed Freedom, 2015).
Food Science Professor Wendy White carried out the trials which started in March and finished in June 2016 (ClinicalTrials.gov, 2016).Twelve healthy female students were fed a prescribed diet which contained three bananas, only one of which was GM. They were paid $900. (Leys, 2015). Iowa State University’s relevant bodies approved the study based on information about the gene and that foods with beta carotene have a long history of safety. Participants signed a detailed consent form and were given ‘additional scientific information about the safety of GM food (Banana21, 2016). It was decided that the banana did not to pose a risk to human health.
No safety or feeding trials of GM bananas had been done before the students ate the GM bananas. The Banana21 site about Professor Dale’s work lists only four peer-reviewed published studies. None of them are safety trials on GM bananas. The only feeding trial is on Mongolian gerbils fed non-GM bananas to see if they produced more Vitamin A (Bresnahan et al., 2012). Were the students aware of this? Were they notified of statement from hundreds of scientists stating that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods (Hilbeck et al., (2015)?
The GM bananas Indian connection.
Professor Dale’s GM banana research is not only trying to create a banana that is high in beta carotene and disease resistant but also one that has high levels of iron. The GM bananas are intended to alleviate nutrient deficiency in India as well as Africa. India is the largest grower of bananas in the world, is a centre of banana diversity, and has been growing bananas for thousands of years.
Navdanya, a network of farmers and seed banks spread across India, launched the “No to GMO bananas” campaign in 2013:
“Dr Dale does not have a single paper related to iron fortification of bananas. This work has been done by the Bhabha Atomic Research Team…So the research on GM banana is Indian, the finance comes from India, yet Dr Dale and Bill Gates strut around the world as if their research, their brains and their money is making a Technology transfer of GM bananas possible to India to save Indian Women.” (Navdanya, 2016).
What do Africans and Indians think of GM bananas?
Both Africa and India have a long history of banana cultivation and a wide diversity of bananas. They have different varieties for different purposes, including the brewing of beer. Bananas play an important role in the cultures of both Africa and India.
“Bridget Mugambe, a Ugandan campaigner with Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, declared, "What is eluding the Gates Foundation is the existence of diverse alternative sources of Vitamin A rich foods that are easily planted and readily available in Uganda. The need for this Vitamin A rich GM banana is clearly assumed, and may sadly end up destroying a food that is at the very core of our social fabric” (The Ecologist).
And in 2013, Navdanya (2016) noted on its website:
“GMO bananas are in any case not a solution to anemia. Bananas are rich in nutrition but have only 0.44mg of iron per 100 grams of edible portion. All the effort to increase iron content of bananas will fall short [of] the iron content of our indigenous biodiversity. According to the BARC scientists, they can achieve a 6-fold increase in iron content in GMO bananas. This makes it 2.6mg, which is 3000% less than iron in turmeric, or niger, or lotus stem, 2000% less than Amchur (mango powder). The safe, biodiverse alternatives are multifold”.
Navdanya goes on to say, “We have to grow nutrition by growing biodiversity, not industrially “fortify” nutritionally empty food at high cost, or put one or two nutrients into genetically engineered crops and that:
As the Navdanya report Health per Acre shows When an acre of farmland is used for organic mixed cropping in place of conventional mono cropping, 39 g of extra iron is produced. This amount is sufficient to nourish 16,250 lactating mothers with iron for a day. On a national scale, the extra amount of iron produced organically would be sufficient to meet the requirement of 20 billion hypothetical lactating mothers.” [Underlining is shown in quoted text] (Navdanya, 2016).
Mariam Mayet from the African Centre for Biosafety states that GM fortified foods direct attention to new technologies and away from the underlying problems causing malnutrition. Yet the past failures of GM and the biosafety hazards they create are ignored.
“It is surprising that biofortification receives so much attention when GM crops simply cannot address multiple nutritional challenges arising from, amongst others, environmental degradation and lack of access to public health and sanitation. Our main objection is that this diverts resources and the policy making trajectory away from real solutions which can be found in the diversity of food and farming.” (LEISA India, 2016).
The 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Global Report (McIntyre, Herren, Wakhungu & Watson, [Eds.] 2009) – the largest, most comprehensive report into how to feed ourselves ever done - showed that to feed the world we need to move away from industrial agriculture to mosaics of more local production designed to meet people’s needs rather than corporate profits.
Who benefits from GM bananas?
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has conflicts of interest in its funding and promotion of the GM banana. It has assets of $43.5 billion and makes money from investments in large and controversial corporations, some of which are GM companies. It is the largest funder of GM research in the world. It is supporting the efforts of large GM companies to expand in Africa by its public relations, grants to institutions that are using GM and biotech, and helping change national laws to allow GM. (Curtis, 2016). A 2008 article in The Lancet (Sridhar and Batniji, 2008) found the BMGF gave most of its grant money to organisations in wealthy countries, widening the gap in scientific knowledge. It has been criticized for by-passing public health systems, ignoring effective social and economic change and concentrating on technological fixes that benefit large corporations. There is almost no scrutiny, accountability or evaluation of the BMGF’s projects, despite it giving more to global health and aid than any government (Curtis, 2016).
Is the GM banana safe to grow and eat?
Johnson (2016) noted, ‘Dale also points out that the genetic engineering didn’t make radical changes, it just inserted a gene from one banana into another. “We’re just up-regulating a natural process,” he said.’ It seems simple and risk-free, until you investigate further. Dale applied for a license to grow up to 1241 lines of GM bananas in field trials. Each one is a different genetically modified plant. It is not clear exactly which line is the GM banana fed to the students in the trials. All the lines have been genetically modified with a gene that makes them resistant to the antibiotics kanamycin and neomycin (Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, 2011, p9). These are used to treat serious bacterial infections. GM plants commonly contain an antibiotic resistance gene that has been inserted as part of the GM process. While it is claimed the GM plants are unlikely to cause antibiotic resistance in humans. (Gay & Gillespie, 2005), no testing has been done to see if this is true.
The World Health Organization has called antibiotic resistance “…one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” (World Health Organization, 2016). A review on antimicrobial resistance done for the UK Prime Minister in 2013, estimated 700,000 people died worldwide from infections no longer able to be treated with antibiotics and by 2050 this is likely to increase to 10 million deaths worldwide (Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, 2014,p5).
Chinese researchers tested bacteria from six rivers in 2012. In every river they tested they found an average of 27% of the bacteria were resistant to many antibiotics. The genetic analysis showed the bacteria had acquired resistance from laboratory-produced modified genes (Chen et al., 2012; Sirinathsinghji, 2013).
Bacteria swap genes, GM and non-GM, while they are alive. Living bacteria can also pick up ‘naked DNA’ surviving in the environment after bacteria die and their cell walls have decomposed. Could Dale’s GM banana experiments be creating bacteria resistant to antibiotics? Will the skin, fruit, leaves and roots of GM bananas leave ‘naked’ GM antibiotic-resistant genes as they decompose? Will this allow living bacteria to pick up and share these antibiotic resistant genes? We don’t know.
Bacteria know no borders
US researchers Smith and Mayer have found antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be spread from cattle feedlots across wide areas by the wind, with their research sparking much controversy that put Smith and Mayer under great pressure (Hershaw, 2016). Factory farming of animals cannot happen without the routine use of antibiotics. Bacteria become resistant to constant exposure to antibiotics. If dust from the feedlots carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria is proven to be infecting and possibly killing people, will feedlots be closed?
If GM crops are creating bacteria unable to be killed by antibiotics in the water, soil and air, will they be banned? The stakes are high for the GM industry. Perhaps that is why no tests have been done into the full effect GM crops are having either on bacteria in the environment or on the bacteria inside our guts.
The risks of genetic manipulation are greater than unintentionally creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. GM disrupts the genome of a plant creating a cascade of subtle changes that could produce novel toxins, anti-nutrients or allergens. (Latham, Wilson, & Steinbrecher, 2006). The current level of testing of GM foods cannot fully investigate these risks.
Professor Dale has received $12 million to genetically manipulate bananas to raise their beta carotene levels but bananas naturally high in beta carotene already exist. He is also researching GM bananas high in iron and resistant to disease. It appears that micronutrient deficiency is caused by the lack of a varied diet and could be solved by eating vegetables, fruit and herbs, not GM bananas.
Banana diseases can be lessened by ending the commercial practice of growing monocultures of bananas. Farmers in both Africa and India have expressed their opposition to GM bananas. They would prefer that small farms growing a variety of food for the household and community be supported.
The GM banana project is funded by the BMGF that both earns money from, and supports, GM technology and GM companies. Farmers are at risk from this technology, first from the biopiracy of genes from plants they have developed and secondly from GM crops disrupting their economies and ecosystems. Calls for the fair payment of taxes by corporations, that would allow governments to determine their own agriculture, research and health goals, have been ignored.
There are no peer-reviewed studies showing GM bananas are safe to eat. Evidence exists that industrial agriculture and GM genes are changing bacteria in ways that could harm human health.
We have been fed the idea that modern industrial agriculture is the pinnacle of productivity and health. Perhaps we need to reconsider this mindset. If micronutrient deficiency is due to poverty, caused by an unfair economic and tax system and lack of access to a diverse diet, then GM bananas are a false solution.
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