Why test GE Bananas on U.S. citizens?

According to a recent NPR article, “Somewhere in Iowa, volunteers are earning $900 apiece by providing blood samples after eating” bananas that have been genetically engineered (GE) to produce levels of pro-vitamin A some 5-6 times higher than levels in their non-engineered counterparts. Previous U.S. trials of the GE bananas, which used Mongolian gerbils instead of humans, were described as “successful” and this next test, the world’s first human test of a GE banana, is designed “to assess how successful it is in producing higher levels of vitamin A in the body.”

These GE bananas are a fresh fruit version of Golden Rice and have been created to “reduce infant mortality and blindness in children across Africa,” an admirable goal.

But why then are the human trials being conducted in the U.S.?

Will results obtained for U.S. residents with adequate vitamin A be applicable to residents of Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo where bananas are a staple crop and vitamin A (and other vitamin and mineral) deficiency is a major problem?

Shouldn’t these human trials be conducted in Uganda?

Better yet, wouldn’t a trial conducted with non-GE varieties of bananas like Asupina and Uht en yap, which naturally have ~20 and ~40 times as much pro-vitamin A respectively as found in the more common Cavendish variety, serve as a better proof-of-concept for solving vitamin A deficiency in East Africa? Trials in Uganda with naturally “golden” bananas could also give researchers an idea of how willing Ugandans are to eat orange-fleshed bananas. (Of course, if Ugandans were happy to eat banana varieties that are naturally higher in pro-vitamin A, it might not have been necessary to genetically engineer Cavendish or other banana varieties in the first place.)

Just what is the rationale for conducting trials of the GE bananas on U.S. soil?

Could the relatively lax regulatory environment for GE crops and foods in the United States have influenced this decision?

Legislation paving the way for commercialization of GE crops in Uganda is currently before that country’s parliament but, in the meantime, further development of GE “Golden” bananas must take place elsewhere.

And what better “elsewhere” than the (arguably?) most GMO-friendly nation on the planet?

Here in the U. S., these GE bananas require minimal regulation. They don’t produce a pesticide and so regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t come into play. Regulation of GE foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is on a voluntary basis so the developers of these GE bananas aren’t required to even consult with that agency either.

And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does consider this GE banana a “regulated” article (due to the fact that it was created using an organism on USDA’s “plant pest” list), it is being regulated by that agency using its less stringent “Notification” procedure as opposed to the usual “Permit” process.

With this “developer-friendly” system for regulating GE crops, it only makes sense that developers of GE foods from other nations will turn to the U.S. to test their prototypes, whether those foods are destined for U.S. dinner tables or not.

So, no matter what the results of the human tests of GE bananas in Iowa end up being, Americans should realize their broader ramifications. The relatively lax regulation of GE crops here in the United States encourages the rest of world to use us as guinea pigs (if not Mongolian gerbils).

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6 Responses to Why test GE Bananas on U.S. citizens?

  1. Linda says:

    Glad to see your letter printed in The New Yorker.

    I am interested to learn your thoughts on this development. https://news.wsu.edu/2014/09/15/wheat-gene-discovery-clears-way-for-non-gmo-breeding/#.VBsMeOeGl_n

  2. Linda says:

    Just watched a video taping of a recent Seattle conference with speakers from Africa discussing the impact of US agricultural policies & the Gates Foundation, Monsanto, & other organizations on the people of Africa.

    Here is a quote from that conference, which adds to your comments about the GE banana: “Who is US agriculture policy really benefiting? … The issue of the vitamin A banana in Uganda … I’m Ugandan, this is my staple food … Bananas are everything to us – food, culture. We do a lot with bananas – we brew alcohol from them, we do ceremonies around them, marriage, funeral rites … Who is this [banana] project benefiting, who gets its funding? It is targeting increasing vitamin A consumption for young children, & in my culture young children don’t like bananas … so this project doesn’t speak to them … children learn to eat bananas when they are 7 or 8 or 9. So if you’re bringing a project to address children under 5 years, & you’re putting in all this money, & you do not understand how this food is consumed, well then you might as well throw that money into a ditch.”

  3. Ed Regis says:

    I think the better question is: Why not? The bananas are being tested on volunteers, and nobody’s holding a gun to their heads. Indeed, they’re being paid handsomely for their participation. The first human test of Golden Rice was conducted on US soil, with US citizens. Presumably the experimenters want to establish a bioavailability baseline in humans. So long as the test subjects gave their informed consent, what exactly is the problem?

    • Belinda says:

      It would be interesting to know if establishing a bioavailability baseline in humans was the goal of the experiment; I can’t find much follow-up information about this project even though it’s now two years since the original experiment with humans was conducted. It would also be interesting to know why the researchers were only looking for women volunteers for their experiment (according to a recent article in Grist)…more transparency about the project would be nice.

      My point is that it would be a better controlled, more relevant experiment if it was conducted with Ugandans; bioavailability is affected by a person’s diet, for example, and the diet of your average female college student in Iowa is very different from that of your average subsistence farmer in Uganda. And maybe the mere fact that regulation of GE foods is so lax here in the U.S. is not a good reason to conduct the experiment here anyway if it’s not going to provide information relevant to your target consumer. Just because you can conduct the experiment here doesn’t mean you should.

      • Ed Regis says:

        Testing the fruit first in Uganda would make the experimenters vulnerable to the same charge that Greenpeace made when in 2011 a group of US researchers tested Golden Rice on 68 elementary school children aged 6 to 8, in the Hunan province of China. Greenpeace claimed that the American researchers had used the Chinese children as “guinea pigs.” This despite the fact that essentially the same group of US researchers had, in 2008, first tested the rice in this country, on adult volunteers in Boston. Just imagine the Greenpeace reaction if the very first GE banana experiment was conducted in Uganda!
        Yes, of course the bananas should be tested on the target population in Uganda, but not before we test them on ourselves first. That I think is at least part of the rationale in this case.

      • Belinda says:

        It is so interesting to me that you bring up these studies with Golden Rice without any mention of the ethical problems associated with, and researcher sanctions imposed as a result of, them. (The paper describing the study conducted with Chinese school children was actually retracted by the scientific journal it was originally published in!)

        When researchers don’t follow required federal regulations to obtain “informed consent” from the human subjects participating in their research (see information from a news item in Science below), “guinea pigs” is not an reasonable designation for those human subjects.

        A better strategy is to stop blaming Greenpeace and instead encourage scientists to conduct their research properly, ethically and honestly.

        As described in a news item in Science:
        a U.S. researcher and
        “Three Chinese collaborators who initially denied involvement in the study…were punished for their participation…following an official investigation in China, and parents of the children received generous financial compensation from the Chinese government.”

        “Tufts, in its letter to [the U.S. Office for Human Research Protections], characterized [the U.S. researcher’s] actions as constituting “serious and continuing non-compliance with federal regulations” and with Tufts [human research] policy….Tufts has barred her from doing research on humans for 2 years, during which time she will be “retrained on human subjects research regulations and policies,” the university stated; after the training is completed, for a further 2 years she can do human studies only as a supervised co-investigator.”
        “The external panel criticized Tufts’ [human research approval system] for having failed to verify that there were ethics panels in place in China equipped to review the study, and whether they actually reviewed and approved the trial. The [Tufts human research approval system] should also have ensured that the informed consent form for parents explicitly stated that the rice is the product of genetic engineering.”

        “U.S. guidelines stipulate that such forms use plain language understandable to lay people, and the [human research approval system] agreed to let [her] say that “Golden Rice is a new rice which makes beta-carotene,” without using the loaded words “genetically modified.” (The consent form for a very similar study by [the researcher] among adults in Boston, published in 2009, didn’t use that term either.) Given the sensitivities over transgenic food, which existed in China as well, that was the wrong decision, according to the external panel.”

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