Apr 21 2016

Huffpo Attacks GMO Bananas

GMO-bananaEric Gimenez, writing for the Huffpo, recently wrote a typical anti-GMO piece, hitting many of the common themes. He focuses on the GMO banana with enhanced vitamin A, but his article reflects the poor logic, tortured arguments, and general anti-science of the anti-GMO crowd.

The GMO Banana

I wrote about the GMO banana controversy here. Bananas are a staple crop in parts of the world, including East Africa where it can represent up to 70% of calories consumed. Vitamin A deficiency is also common in this region. According to National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) acting director Dr Andrew Kiggundu, 52% of children under five in Uganda suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, while iron deficiency accounts for 40% of deaths in this age group.

The idea is to engineer a banana cultivar native to the region so that it produces more beta carotene and iron. The cultivar is already adapted to the region, and the locals are already heavily growing and relying upon this staple crop.

Further, the GMO is being developed by the Ugandan government, NARO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This is primarily a humanitarian project created by the local government and farmers.

In other words – the project is a perfect nightmare for the anti-GMO crowd. There is no corporate greed, no agricultural colonialism, no patents, no pesticides, and no environmental issues (no potential for contamination or cross breeding). Further, not only are there no health risks, this GMO plant is designed to address a critical health issue in the region.

In this way the GMO banana is similar to golden rice, another attempt to use GM technology to address vitamin A deficiency by fortifying a staple crop.

You might think that anti-GMO activists would have nothing to complain about, that they might accept this GMO as an exception to their usual complaints. That would be underestimating human ingenuity when it comes to rationalizing their ideological positions.

Anti-GMO Anti-Science

Gimenez starts off with a standard anti-GMO talking point.

For some, the ISU GE banana study might be seen as a welcome change of direction. After all, the GE industry that has yet to carry out any epidemiological or regional ecological studies to assess GE’s adverse impact on public health or the environment. (Essentially, we’ve all been part of one big, uncontrolled industrial experiment.)

In this case GMO protesters are objecting to doing a human study looking at the proposed GMO banana – so they are protesting the very research they say doesn’t exist and that we need for GMOs. Their premise is false and misleading, however.

First, there are ecological studies of GMOs. It took less than a minute to find this one: Ecological impacts of genetically modified crops: ten years of field research and commercial cultivation, which concludes:

The data available so far provide no scientific evidence that the cultivation of the presently commercialized GM crops has caused environmental harm.

There have been epidemiological studies on animals being fed GMOs. The largest study covers 19 years and billions of animals, showing no health difference from before there was any GMO feed to after most animal feed was GMO.

His comment also demonstrates the double standard of anti-GMO rhetoric. For the last century the agricultural community has been introducing new cultivars into our food production system, generated by forced hybridization and mutation farming, and yet GMO luddites never complain about these technologies, or call for more research into their impact.

Now we get to the meat of Gimenez’s complaints:

There are many assumptions behind these claims, none the least of which is that Ugandans actually eat the export banana stock being engineered (not so much); and that there aren’t high beta-carotene varieties already being consumed in East Africa (there are). One might also start by asking why some East African diets are low in Vitamin A and if bio-fortified bananas are really the right solution to the problem…

The first claim, that Ugandans won’t accept the new banana, is just false. I don’t know where he gets the claim that the GMO banana is from an “export banana stock.” Every reference I read indicates that it is the local cultivar that is being fortified. That is the point – the banana is already adapted to the local growing conditions. It will be identical to the banana they are already growing, except the flesh will be orange instead of cream color (from the beta carotene).

We also have recent history to indicate that local farmers will welcome a GMO banana, because they already have. Banana crops throughout the world are being threatened by pests. When most of your calories come from bananas, having a crop wiped out by fungus is a matter of life and death. Ugandan farmers rapidly adopted a GMO banana engineered to be resistant to pests, to protect their crops.

The second claim is a bit vague – varieties of what high in beta carotene? I suspect he is referring to vegetables (not to other banana varieties).

This is a common gambit among science-deniers – challenge any proposed solution you don’t like not because it doesn’t work but by saying people won’t like it (because we have scared them off) or that there are other solutions. You can make the latter argument about anything – there are always other options. So what?

The fact is, despite the availability of vegetables high in vitamin A, they are not staple crops, not part of the culture, not adapted to the Ugandan highlands, and are not already solving the problem. Encouraging the adoption of a larger variety of foods with better nutrition is a good idea, and is being done, but it is only a partial solution. Fortifying a staple crop is another solution, likely to have a bigger impact. With so much morbidity and mortality due to vitamin A deficiency, we need multiple programs to address it, and we don’t have the luxury of denying one method that promises to be highly effective.

His final point above is also a common tactic – don’t address a specific effect of poverty, fix poverty itself. Well, good luck with that. Similar tactics are used, for example, by anti-fluoridationists. Just have them brush their teeth, and fix the socioeconomic problems that underlie poor oral hygiene.

Of course it is a good idea to fix poverty and economic disparity, but it is foolish in the extreme to imagine that we will solve these deeply complex problems anytime soon. You could, of course, use the same argument against any humanitarian effort designed to relive suffering or improve conditions in poor parts of the world.

This leads nicely into the next point, that of privilege:

The opportunity to engage in a scientific dialogue is indeed a privilege — one usually reserve for those with power — and rarely extended to university students, the general public or the populations who are the objects of scientific research.

This is a profoundly lame response to a serious accusation. It is a diversion. First, engaging in a scientific dialogue is not a restricted privilege, as he claims. It seems everyone is engaged in this dialogue. Are university student being silenced? Seriously, this is absurd.

It is a desperate attempt to distract from the real point, that well-fed first world students and others are protesting research designed to improve the lives of poor third-world residents. Go ahead, tell that blind Ugandan child they don’t need vitamin A fortified bananas. Just hang in there while we fix poverty.

Here is his summary of the questions the anti-GMO students had for the researchers:

The somewhat lengthy questions boiled down to four main queries: (1) How will GE bananas impact nutrition and hunger in Uganda, or how will ISU and/or the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation address this question? (2) How was the technology determined to be a culturally appropriate intervention? (3) Who will own or control this technology upon its development? and (4) How should public universities be involved in GE bio-fortification and testing?

Here are some answers:

  1. Uh, they will increase vitamin A and iron in their staple crop, reducing malnutrition.
  2. It’s their banana, and the research was started by their government. This is their research program, offering a solution to their problem. The Gates foundation is just offering some funding. Seriously, just Google it.
  3. The Ugandan government and farmers will!
  4. They provide research and expertise. In this case they went to a world expert in testing beta carotene levels in food. That was the scientists’ only role, offering their very narrow area of expertise to answer a specific question. It’s called research.

Gimenez makes it seem like these are deep penetrating questions exposing the dark side of the GMO banana project. It’s nonsense. The questions are pathetic, silly really. They are just a way to make it seem like there are real concerns about this project. It is an elaborate version of JAQing off (just asking questions, a common tactic of deniers). The questions exist for propaganda purposes, to imply the answers conceal something nefarious.


I do hope that the fortified banana, like golden rice, continue to progress and make it to farmer’s fields. Primarily I wish this because these interventions have the potential to address a major health crisis affecting mostly poor children.

I also wish that the anti-GMO crowd will come around and realize their folly, but I suspect they will go down swinging. In which case, I sincerely hope that their greatest fears are realized – that GM fortified varieties actually work, and that those who opposed such technology for ideological reasons are properly disgraced.

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