James Dale is a scientist at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT, Australia). His lab has developed a genetically modified (GM, genetically engineered) banana (Musa × paradisiaca) rich in ‘pro-vitamin A’. Here’s the QUT report.
This is the ‘super banana’ that I nicknamed Provit Banana. It’s about to start being tested on human volunteers in the United States. If all goes to plan, it’ll be commercially available to Ugandan farmers by 2020. Much of the project’s funding came from the philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Provit Banana is a GM variety of the Highland or East African cooking banana. In the QUT report I linked to above, Prof Dale explains that the cooking banana, ‘chopped and steamed, is a staple food of many East African nations [such as Uganda] but it has low levels of micronutrients particularly pro-vitamin A and iron… In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well.’
Cultivated bananas are grown from suckers (shoots which appear at an existing plant’s base) or from plantlets made by tissue culture. In other words, nearly all cultivated bananas are clones. Nearly all cultivars of that crop are a strain called Cavendish. I think that East African cooking bananas, including the new Provit Banana, are Cavendish cultivars whereas West African plantain bananas are not. Please tell me if I’m wrong.
[Edit: I was wrong. Here’s a webpage about the East African highland banana (EAHB). ‘The bulk of East African highland bananas are grown in Uganda and alone holds about 120 EAHB varieties. Uganda is thus considered the secondary home of banana diversity.’]
Prof Dale’s academic profile doesn’t yet list a research paper describing the science behind Provit Banana. When I find that paper, I’ll tell you what it says. I’ll tell you which kind of biotech Prof Dale means when he mentions ‘the same technology’.
Meanwhile this 2012 paper describes some of the previous research about pro-vitamin A, done by a team including Prof Dale. ‘Carotenoids occur in all photosynthetic organisms… Of the more than 600 known plant carotenoids, few can be converted into vitamin A by humans and so these pro-vitamin A carotenoids (pVAC) are important in human nutrition… There is natural variation in fruit pVAC content across different banana cultivars.’
The scientists at QUT identified genes encoding an enzyme which allows the plant to make pVAC. Variation in those genes leads to variation in bananas pVAC content. Therefore, the scientists proposed to transfer those genes from a pVAC-rich banana to a pVAC-poor banana. I think this is how Provit Banana was made. It’s classed as GM because genes were transferred between plant cells to make it, but it carries only banana genes. No genes from any other species.
The method for gene transfer can’t have been marker assisted backcrossing, as I described for the flood-tolerant Scuba Rice (a biotech Oryza sativa). That method can’t have been used to make Provit Banana because, unlike rice, cultivated bananas don’t make seeds.
Anyway, here’s Provit Banana. Prof Dale predicts that it will help to nourish poor children. ‘The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000-700,000 children world-wide dying from pro-vitamin A deficiency each year and at least another 300,000 going blind… Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A.’
Some commentators are excited about Provit Banana. For example, Cahal Milmo at the Independent says that this GM banana could ‘slash African infant mortality.’
But not everybody is excited. An unnamed author, writing I think from the United States, agrees that Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem but doesn’t trust the Gates Foundation to make good choices. ‘The Gates Foundation has a history of supporting GMO research and technology… [including investment] 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,” [news agency] 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 [news agency] Quartz.’
I’m watching. Does eating Provit Banana raise people’s Vitamin A levels? Can it do that in conditions of poverty, including a lack of -70 degC freezers and a lack of high-fat diets? If it can do that, who will control it and make money from it?
Uganda is extremely rich in banana diversity. How can Provit Banana be useful towards conserving that diversity and therefore food sovereignty?]
At least there’s no worry about banana pollen contaminating a non-GMO field.