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Genetic modification going bananas

By Anna Campbell

My fourth form social studies teacher said to me in front of an entire class, in deep frustration, “Anna, you have your mind on hockey and boys”. He was right, I had the attention span of a gnat and when I look back on high school, I remember being excited for academic reasons only twice. The first of these momentous occasions was while reading “Death of a Salesman”, by Arthur Miller, goodness knows why a play about a middle-aged, disillusioned salesman caught my fickle teenage attention, but oh, how I loved that play. The second was when we learned about “Genetic Engineering” and the possibilities the technology had for our future. 

I went to high school in the late 80s, when genetic engineering was new, exciting and offered so many solutions. As with any new technology, the possibilities of what we could do somewhat outweighed thoughts of how the technology might affect our food chain. Later, while doing my PhD in plant biotechnology, the debate really started. The scientific community was still gung-ho, “genetic modification will stop the use of pesticides, will make our food taste better and on top of that, will feed the starving in Africa”. Meanwhile, the general public, were questioning the safety of genetically modified food, questioning the motives of scientists. 

The average scientist’s response to the questioning was that “the public don’t understand the science, they just need education”. This was often said in such a patronising manner as to raise the ire of even the more moderate “general public”, including myself at that time, the fledgling scientist. 

Being the pragmatist I was, at the end of my PhD, I remained in the area of genetic improvement, but steered clear of “genetic engineering.” So too, did the New Zealand Government, issuing a moratorium on the release of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into our agricultural production systems.

So here we are, decades later and I sense the debate around genetic modification has changed. Many people understand that genetically modified food is well and truly part of our food chain. A vast proportion of corn, soybean, cotton and canola produced internationally is derived from genetically modified crops. Corn, soybean and canola derivatives are used widely as food ingredients and most of us, knowingly or not, eat these products on a daily basis. There is no scientific evidence to show that this has had a detrimental effect on human health, although some groups will still debate this.  

There is also still debate about what genetic modification programmes mean for the dominance of international conglomerates. However, I suspect, the power of these organisations is growing independently of their use of genetic modification technology and their dominance is a manifestation of capitalism in general. 

The debate I do still grapple with is how we keep non-modified germplasm “pure”. This is certainly challenging, given the natural spread of pollen and seeds of genetically modified crops. As long as there is an international market for “non-GMO” food, then the New Zealand Government will struggle to support the introduction of genetically modified plants and animals into our agricultural system, given so many of our exporters trade heavily on our “100% Pure” image.

Recently however, the frame for the GMO debate has shifted again. I have been following some incredible scientific success stories where genetically modified bananas are being trialled in India and Uganda. Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology are working to produce bananas in India fortified with iron, in order to help address widespread anaemia, which can lead to death during childbirth. In Uganda, the same scientists are trialing banana crops which have increased levels of provitamin A which is converted by the human body into vitamin A (or retinol). In Uganda, 52 percent of children under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiencies which can lead to stunting of growth. Other genetically modified banana crops being trialed in Uganda are resistant to widespread banana diseases. 

For us, bananas are just another fruit, tasty and healthy, so it is difficult to comprehend the potential influence of these projects. In Uganda, bananas are a staple food, eaten in some shape or form, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Banana diseases which wipe out entire crops have horrific ramifications. The banana improvement programmes in Uganda have been supported by the Ugandan government, the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

I was lucky enough to hear the lead scientists of these programmes speak recently at an international agri-biotechnology conference. They spoke with passion, in their role as scientists, but also as members of the “world community”. As I listened to them, the photos of Ugandan children pulled at my heartstrings and it suddenly seemed hypocritical for me to sit on the fence around genetic modification any longer.

Yes, we still face challenges in our debate, but we have come a long way from my heady science class in the 80s where we believed genetic modification would be our saviour. I now understand, genetic modification is a tool, a technology in our arsenal to combat global food issues. It is also a tool to assist us in adding value to agricultural products, be that through medicinal milk products or drought resistant grasses. 

The fundamental question I ask myself, as a scientist, and more importantly as a mother, is:

Would I choose to feed my own children genetically modified food? 

My unequivocal answer, “yes” and if it was my own children who had vitamin A deficiency beware of anyone who got in my way as I hunted down those genetically modified bananas.