by Tony Leys – The Des Moines Register, 12 January 2015
A controversial plan to have Iowa State University students eat genetically modified bananas has been delayed, apparently because of issues in shipping the fruit.
The bananas, created by an Australian scientist, contain a gene that is supposed to help people living in Africa produce vitamin A. Proponents say the gene came from a different type of banana and is completely safe to eat. But opponents contend the trial could expose volunteers to unknown dangers.
An ISU scientist had planned to feed the bananas to a dozen students during last fall’s semester. But that didn’t happen, a university spokeswoman confirmed last month. The spokeswoman said she didn’t know why the trial was delayed or when or whether it would resume.
James Dale, the Australian scientist who developed the bananas, said in an email to The Des Moines Register this weekend that he still hopes to complete the trial by mid-year.
“Importantly, the nutrition study will go forward, but not until all of us are satisfied that the banana material meets quality standards,” he wrote. “As you might imagine, given how you see bananas ripen in your own home, it has been a challenge shipping bananas from Australia to the US and having them arrive in good condition.”
Iowa State researchers sent an email to students last summer seeking a dozen female volunteers for the study. Food science professor Wendy White said then that the volunteers would be paid $900 to eat the equivalent of three bananas each as part of a short-term, prescribed diet. Just one of the bananas would be the genetically modified type. Blood tests would be used to determine the body’s reaction.
White said more than 500 students responded to the query, and 12 were selected.
The proposed trial has become a prominent topic in the long-running debate over genetically modified foods. Many scientists say such plants can safely include important nutrients, pest-prevention qualities or other attributes. But skeptics worry that genetically modified foods could be dangerous and uncontrollable, and they often portray the supporters as trying to quietly slip the products into public consumption.
Last month, the group African Centre for Biosafety decried the plan to eventually ship the genetically modified bananas to Uganda and other African countries. “Just because the GM banana has been developed in Australia and is being tested in the U.S. does not make it super!” Ugandan activist Bridget Mugambe wrote in a news release. “Ugandans know what is super because we have been eating homegrown GM-free bananas for centuries. This GM banana is an insult to our food, to our culture, to us a nation, and we strongly condemn it.”
The group’s director, Mariam Mayet of South Africa, said last week that she was unsure what to make of the delay in the trial or of Iowa State’s lack of response to an open letter her group sent about the matter.
“How are we to interpret this silence? Disregard and disrespect? Dismissal perhaps?” Mayet wrote in an email to the Register. “… We would have expected not only a response, but greater transparency on the part of Iowa State — a willingness to share information and relevant and important bio-safety data pertaining to the trials.”
She said she was puzzled by the claim that bananas are hard to transport, given how routinely they are shipped to grocery stores every day.
White said the goal of her research is to help people in Africa increase their production of vitamin A. “In Uganda and other African countries, vitamin A deficiency is a major contributor to deaths in childhood from infectious diseases,” she wrote in a statement released by the university in July. “Wouldn’t it be great if these bananas could prevent preschool kids from dying from diarrhea, malaria or measles?”
The scientist said the new type of banana includes a gene taken from another banana species, which naturally produces large amounts of beta-carotene. When people eat beta-carotene, their bodies turn it into vitamin A.
Residents of Uganda and nearby countries don’t favor the type of sweet banana that naturally carries the extra beta-carotene, White said. So researchers have put the gene into a less-sweet type of banana that east Africans often use in cooking. White added that the new banana has no seeds, so there is no danger that the genetically modified plant would escape into nature.
Dale said Iowa State was chosen to conduct the trial because no independent Australian lab was available to do the work and analyze the results.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the project financially.
Jim Lorenzen, a senior program officer for the Gates Foundation, said the foundation expects the research to continue. “The Gates Foundation continues to support the Banana21 project, which is helping find ways to tackle vitamin A deficiency. We look forward to seeing the Iowa trial move forward after the project has completed the necessary due diligence,” he wrote in a prepared statement sent to the Register.
Iowa State University has said that before the trial begins, details of how it would be conducted would be posted on a federal website, clinicaltrials.gov. As of Monday, the trial was not registered there.