Super bananas in the dock

The Gates Foundation has sunk $15 million into developing GMO ‘super bananas’ with high levels of pre-Vitamin A, writes Adam Breasley. But the project is using ‘stolen’ genes from a Micronesian banana cultivar. And what exactly is the point, when delicious, popular, nutritious ‘red bananas’ rich in caroteinoids are already grown around the tropics?

That provocative lede to an article in The Ecologist provoked a number of responses when I posted it on Facebook1. As not everyone can post comments there, and nobody at all can post comments at The Ecologist, I’ve decided to move the whole thing here.

A couple of comments were actually questions. Anastasia Bodnar asked: Are the existing red banana cultivars suitable for growing where this new variety is intended to be grown? And Sarah Hearne added: And do the red bananas have the same farmer/consumer acceptance in East African and beyond as existing varieties? Good questions all. And Alexandra Zum Felde addressed them, and more, in her comment:

Red bananas — at least ones like those in the photo, not Fe’i bananas — can and are grown where Cavendish are grown (so basically all over the tropics), though they — like many traditional cultivars — are not as productive as Cavendish bananas. But Cavendish are not the issues here — in Uganda the staple banana is Matooke (East African Highland Banana), of which over 180 cultivars exists … and all of which are pretty beta-carotene poor … but local leafy vegetables are full of (pro)vitamins! It would be easier and more cost-effective to re-vamp the image and attractiveness of traditional foods, than to introduce one single GMO variety.

So, are red bananas, whether traditional cultivars or the ones genetically engineered in an Australian lab, the wrong answer to the right question? Discuss.

  1. The link to the banana accession in question I’ve added myself, and for the record, I really cannot see how you can call its use biopiracy []

8 Replies to “Super bananas in the dock”

  1. When you have kids going blind due to lack of a relatively easily accessible nutrient, everything is the right answer. Native greens, supplements, vitamin shots, GE bananas, anything that keeps a kid from going blind… Bring it on.

    I thought I felt passionate about this stuff before, but now I have a six-month-old at home. I can barely imagine how horrible it must be for parents to not be able to provide a child with a basic food so that they can see the rest of their lives.

      1. But there are funds for the GM banana. Should the project be stopped? What kind of reasons would warrant taking such a step? Because an editor at Scientific American put the title “Super Bananas Enter U.S. Market Trials” on an article about the feeding trial? Because the participants in a feeding trial on Golden Rice did not give informed consent? Or because Breasley writes that the “cultivars rich in pro-Vitamin A carotenoids are … free of patent restrictions, royalty fees and other encumbrances of the global intellectual property regime” to suggest that farmers would have to pay royalties for growing the GM banana, which Breasley knows is not the case? Why not wait to see how this and other interventions pan out and discuss their respective merits based on real data instead of misinformation and preconceived ideas?

    1. You can’t be serious. You’re just saying that to goad me. Well, it worked. Breasley’s piece is pure scaremongering. Anti-GMO activists can’t stop Monsanto and the likes, so they go after non-profit projects that have the potential to help people. I can’t speak to the cost-effectiveness of introducing a GM banana compared to other interventions, but neither can Breasley. He has no evidence to support his argument that introducing red bananas or Fei bananas would be easier and more cost-effective. For one, red bananas are not particularly rich in provitamin A carotenoids (their name comes from the colour of their peel, not of their pulp) while Fei bananas have a reputation for being difficult to grow and are not very productive. They are also nothing like the East African highland bananas that are a staple in the highlands of East Africa and which people use in their traditional dishes. On the other hand, the GM banana that would be introduced to Uganda would be a modified EAHB cultivar that farmers already know how to grow. My understanding is that it is meant to help banana farmers who can’t afford a more diversified diet. According to Time magazine, village leaders would receive 10 GM banana plants on the conditions that they share some of the new shoots produced by these plants with villagers. It’s not a commercial venture. Farmers wouldn’t have to pay royalties to anyone and given the banana’s vegetative mode of reproduction they wouldn’t be cut off from their source of planting material.

      Yesterday, you tweeted the results of a study on the links between crop diversity and dietary diversity in Tanzania. “The results revealed that increasing the crop count alone does not significantly influence dietary diversity of farm households”, presumably because farmers are selling the vegetables rather than eating them. So now they have to do educational campaigns to convince farmers to eat more vegetables!

      Banana farmers in Uganda already eat a lot of EAHB bananas. What’s wrong with giving banana farmers some plants of a familiar banana whose only difference is that it produces more carotenoids than the non-modified cultivar? It wouldn’t solve the global problem of vitamin A deficiency but it could help some banana farmers and their family. If the result of the feeding trials show that it can be an effective source of provitamin A, as it was shown for Golden Rice, what harm would be done by supporting its introduction? If it turns out to be less cost-effective than other interventions aimed at banana farmers, then we will have learned something and no harm would have been done. If you are really interested in the issue of cost-effectiveness Alexander Stein has looked into it regarding Golden Rice.

  2. Anne: Breasley is a `food sovereignty’ supporter. From my memory of Uganda in the early 1960s they were long past that nonsense, eating wonderful meals of bananas (Austrolasian) and beans (Latin American): the inverse of food sovereignty. Food activist haven’t a clue about the value and nutrition in introduced crops. Also he works with an Indonesian NGO: the sample used came from PNG – nothing to do with Indonesia. Breasley is a RAFI/ETC clone – an animal that should have retreated to its lair when they messed-up the Community Biodiversity and Conservation Programme (or whatever it was called).

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