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).