Future of biofortified foods: Protests block advancement of super bananas and Golden Rice

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These plantains could be engineered to fight Vitamin A deficiency (CREDIT: Wikistallion, Wikimedia Commons).

Say you live in a developing country where adequate and nutritious food is sparse.

Say the children in your community were going blind or dying from a manageable condition like vitamin A deficiency.

What if someone told you they’d bred a version of a region’s staple crop is rich in the nutrients a young body needs to produce vitamin A?

You’d be thrilled, right? Well, what if it wasn’t bred, but genetically engineered instead? What if the potentially life-saving fruit was a GMO?

These questions are more than just hypotheticals. These crops exist, and scientists have been developing them for years. But have been blocked by activists who judge the plants, not by their potential or the science behind them, but by the way they were made.

One such crop is the ‘super banana,’ which was engineered by the Queensland University of Technology and funded by $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The hope is that this banana can help alleviate vitamin A deficiency in places like Uganda where an estimated 52 percent of children under 5 are vitamin A deficient.

Despite the immense promise of these bananas, many roadblocks have held them up from reaching the people who need them. In the winter of 2014, the bananas were sent to Iowa State University for testing on humans—researchers needed to know if the nutrient is bio-available in sufficient quantities to be effective in treating vitamin A deficiency.

It’s been waylaid there ever since because of protests. In February of 2016, a petition with 57,000 online signatures was delivered to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation demanding that the study cease. Despite this, ISU researcher Wendy White, who is leading the study, says research there on the fruit will finally be conducted at some point in 2016.

It’s been a similar story for ‘Golden Rice,’ another staple crop genetically engineered to combat vitamin A deficiency. (It gets its name from the sunny hue lent to the rice by the beta-carotene present in the grains; beta-carotene is what your body processes to create vitamin A. The flesh of the ‘super bananas’ is a bit more orange than the typical pale yellow for the same reason.)

The idea for Golden Rice was born in 1984 at a meeting between the Rockefeller Foundation and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. In informal conversation, the gathered scientists asked each other: What if you could insert any gene into rice? Charles spoke to Gary Toenniessenthen-head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s biotech program, about the conversation. Most of the scientists mentioned genes for drought or disease resistance, but …

They came to a breeder named Peter Jennings, a legendary figure in these circles. He’d created perhaps the most famous variety of rice in history, called IR 8, which launched the so-called Green Revolution in rice-growing countries of Asia in the 1960s.

“Yellow endosperm,” said Jennings. (The endosperm of a grain of rice or wheat is the main part that’s eaten.)

“That kind of took everybody by surprise. It certainly took me by surprise. So I said, ‘Why?’ ” Toenniessen recalls.

Jennings explained that the color yellow signals the presence of beta-carotene — the source of vitamin A. Yellow kinds of corn or sorghum exist naturally, and for years, Jennings said, he had been looking for similar varieties of rice. Regular white rice doesn’t provide this vital nutrient, and it’s a big problem.

“When children are weaned, they’re often weaned on a rice gruel. And if they don’t get any beta-carotene or vitamin A during that period, they can be harmed for the rest of their lives,” says Toenniessen.

The current iteration of golden rice can supply 60 percent of a child’s daily requirement of vitamin A. A success? Not quite yet. But it is progress as that’s more than previous iterations of the crop.

Aside from some technical challenges, one of the major holdups has been well as protests from activist groups like Greenpeace, which have held back the development of the life-saving crop.  Activists have gone so far as to vandalize fields were tests of the rice were being conducted. Greenpeace’s actions have attracted the scorn of many prominent scientific leaders. For example, on June 30, 2016, 107 Nobel laureates signed a petition pleading with activists to stop blocking the crop’s development and for world leaders to aid its development.

The counter-arguments come in two broad groups: the insistence that golden rice simply doesn’t work—or worse, is dangerous to people and the environment by being genetically modified.

After a study was published in 2009 affirming the findings that the beta-carotene in golden rice is easily absorbed by the body, there were immediate cries of “scandal.” This study gets filed away as “false”—ignoring the fact that the “scandalous” part of the research had to do with whether or not the researchers were explicit about the food tests involving GMOs and had no effect on the validity of the actual findings. Before and since there have been numerous studies affirming the safety and overwhelming health benefits of Golden Rice, but those conclusions are often overshadowed by the ‘scandal.’

The other broad category of complaints is a toxic stew of distrust and fear regarding agricultural biotechnology. Many NGOs claim it’s little more than a PR stunt “being promoted in order to salvage a morally as well as financially bankrupt agricultural biotech industry.”

There are legitimate questions to be asked about the wishes of the communities where this rice will be grown or eaten, about alternatives (e.g. alternate crops naturally rich in beta-carotene; there are no viable ones in areas in which rice is the main staple), about the best approach to solving what everyone agrees is an awful problem.

But the people behind golden rice and the super banana are not charlatans. They’re funded by humanitarian organizations— the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, respectively. Humanitarian organizations founded by some of the most successful capitalists of all time, yes, but humanitarian all the same. It’s not actually Big Bad Monsanto funding these projects. All of the technology developed by corporations has been donated and are free of patents, so poor farmers will be able to exploit this technology and millions, perhaps billions, of people, can benefit. And even if hardened cynics are right and Bill Gates is simply throwing money at malaria and golden rice as ethical stunts to cleanse his capitalism-tainted soul, so what? Would we rather he not give any money to humanitarian causes? This project should be judged on its own merits.

So far the opposition to Golden Rice has proven itself too blinded by its own ideological prejudices to recognize a good-faith effort by researchers, scientists and plant breeders who are trying—with the tools and expertise they have—to help.

James Dale, a biochemist at Queensland University of Technology and leader of the ‘super banana’ project, expressed the altruistic goals of his team’s endeavor in an interview with the the news agency AFP. “Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food,” he said.

Golden rice, super bananas, and GMOs generally are no panacea for the global problems of malnutrition and hunger. Even Kevin Folta, a plant geneticist at the University of Florida and all-around champion of agricultural biotech knows this. The promise that GMOs will “end world hunger” is an oversimplification that distracts from the real potential of genetically modified foods. The highlight of his recent piece in SupplySide Boardroom—titled “GMOs: Failing to Feed a Hungry World,”—is biofortification (i.e. the nutrition-enhancing process used to develop the rice and bananas we’ve been talking about). He paints a depressing picture:

Simple biofortification may have profound effects on third-world human health and, in many cases, may even extend benefits to livestock, adding more depth and richness to diets, as well as profitability to farms. Yet these proven technologies remain only as testimonials in biotechnological innovation confined to the pages of journals with no hope of immediate application.

Famed Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, who literally wrote the book on the animal rights movement and insists that it is a moral imperative that developed countries give more to help impoverished nations, has been supportive of golden rice and a case-by-case evaluation process for GMOs.

The awful truth is, while we sit here debating how best to proceed, children are still dying and going blind. Super bananas and Golden Rice have run into the same wall of obstructionism-masquerading-as-environmentalism. Mine is not a new conclusion, but that makes it no less vital: if we’re going to address the very real, very complicated problems of global poverty and malnutrition, we must be willing to use every available tool. We must be willing to work together.

Kenrick Vezina is a freelance science writer, educator, and naturalist based in the Greater Boston area.

  • mem_somerville

    I have watched the usual suspects ignite their hair on this already. They are lying about it in every possible manner. And yet this no-patent, no-chemical ties, no-pollen issues, nutritionally improved plant is not good enough. They are moving the goalposts as we speak.

    • Kenrick

      Mem, do you have any links on this topic? I’m curious to see some of the goalpost moving. My gut tells me it’s the case — it would fit the pattern of most GMO-opposition — but I not seen much of it re: the new bananas in particular yet.

  • bob

    There are already plants that produce vitamin A, like sweet potatoes, carrots, and kale. The normal argument in favor of Golden Rice says that people can’t afford anything other than rice. So now that they want to push fortified ‘super bananas’ the same question comes up, why not just plant sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, or any other fruit or vegetable that naturally produces vitamin A?

    The other concern is that a simple google search will bring up articles from bloomberg, NYT and others that tens and tens of thousands of pounds of rice are rotting in storage in India just a few miles from starving people due to government corruption. Golden Rice and Super Bananas will not address the actual cause that is currently preventing food from getting to the hungry. A Bloomberg article from 2012 says that 14.5 billion in food from record harvests meant for 350 million starving people in Uttar Pradeshwas looted. NYT from 2012 headlines, Ranwan, India, “As grain piles up, India’s poor still go hungry.”

    • Kenrick

      Bob,

      I’m not discounting the importance of these solutions. Perhaps I didn’t make it fully clear in my article, but I fully believe these problems need to be addressed. I’m even willing to believe they need to be addressed first. But this is not a zero-sum game; pursuing bioforitication as a means to combat nutritional problems does not preclude us from combating governmental corruption. I assure you, I did all the same Google searches you did, but I wanted to make a more narrow point about the toxic culture of the GMO debate and the divisive approach we as a global society are taking toward these issues when we should be working together.

      This wasn’t meant as an endorsement of super bananas or golden rice; it was meant as an effort to add one more voice alongside Singer and Folta saying “Yes, GMOs can’t solve world hunger, but they can help.” If plant scientists want to use their breeding expertise, should we bark at them to stay out of the way unless they go and become experts on foreign policy instead? I would think people more concerned with the larger social issues would welcome any and all good-faith efforts to help, but it seems to me that there’s an exclusionary attitude among the people who profess to care about these issues. That is what I was writing against.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      Bob, the fact that there is massive corruption in gov’t is not relevant to allowing the introduction of biofortified crops. Those people must eventually pay for their crimes. I hope. Biofortified crops are often intended for subsistence and local market farms. The idea is to replace some of the currently used varieties. This couls actually bypass some of the admittedly horribly corrupt gov’ts in the very areas where malnutrition is rampant. Once some of the bananas get by the crooks [both greenpeace and gov’t ones] .they can be propagated vegetatively. Also there are already bananas that exhibit orangish flesh when ripe. So the color may not be much of an issue.

  • bob

    I just read 5 other articles on the Super Banana, including an article from Time. The articles all mention the same statistic, that 650k children are dying each year, but none of the articles mention how much vitamin A the Super Banana will produce, or what is preventing them from growing the wide variety of non-GMO fruits and vege that produce vitamin A.

    For reference:

    1 cup carrots, 26572IU (532% DV)
    1 cup sweet potato, 38436IU (769% DV)
    1 cup kale, 17707IU (354% DV)
    1 cup squash, 22868IU (457% DV)
    1 cup sweet red pepper, 4665IU (93% DV)
    1 mango, 3636IU (73% DV)
    Also dried apricots, cos or romaine lettuce, cantaloupe melon, etc, etc.

    Whether the Super Banana will equal these results is up for debate, but the question remains, if they can afford Super Bananas, why can’t they afford any of the other fruits or vegetables that produce vitamin A, and if Super Bananas can grow in those regions, why can’t any of the existing vitamin A producing fruits or vegetables?

    India is a tragic case study, that it’s not a problem growing the food, or the nutritional density of the food, it’s government corruption preventing food from getting to starving people only a few miles from where it’s stored. GMO food will not fix the root problem, otherwise we could fix it today with existing varieties of vegetables and fruit.

  • Chimel

    “The awful truth is, while we sit here debating how best to proceed, children are still dying and going blind.”
    The sad truth is to insinuate that the aid organizations have been idle all these years, of course they have been providing vitamin A supplement, just not in Golden Rice form.

    On the plus side, one of the arguments against Golden Rice that cannot apply to the fortified plantain is that there cannot be any contamination from cross-pollination, since plantains don’t have seeds anymore and are cloned vegetally, either from saplings, or more commonly now because of the various diseases, from cellular cultures in the lab. They do flower though, but I don’t know if it would affect the fruit of a non-GM plantain within pollination range, if anyone else knows? I assume only the seeds would contain the beta-carotene gene sequence, and since there are no seeds…

    On the minus side, any region that has the potential to grow bananas or plantains also has everything (water, sun and rich soil) it needs to grow an healthy crop of vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, also rich in beta-carotene. Not sure if a GE plantain is the best solution they could come up with, especially if the problem is more about malnutrition than a lack of just this one vitamin A.

    I think you’re mistaken if the fortified plantain will be accepted without a protest from Greenpeace and even the general public. I predict that as soon as the first picture of an orange plantain is released, waves of protest will start. And you basically condemned the project yourself before it started by calling it a “super banana” instead of “fortified plantain.”

    Compare this to vegans, who have no choice but to use synthesized vitamin B12 because it is not present in plants. That may be a better usage of genetic engineering, because there really is no alternatives.

    Lots of valid and interesting comments below.

    • Kenrick

      Chimel, I wasn’t trying to make a commentary on aid organizations. That line is aimed at the two extremes of the pro/anti-GM debate, particularly organizations like Greenpeace that are trying to outright block the introduction of any biofortified anything. Aid organizations are doing great work. Organizations like Greenpeace and plant biologists trying to create fortified plants should be working together, and my admittedly manipulative line was meant to emphasize that what I see in the story of golden rice is a lot of bickering where there could be cooperation.

      As far as “super bananas” go, you make a good point. I was only repeating the language already used by every headline on the topic. It’s possible that referring to it as simply “fortified” would be more palatable … but then, as you noted, as soon as pictures of the orange flesh came out people would probably raise their eyebrows. It’s not like it could be kept secret that it’s a GMO, regardless of what we call it.

      Your comments are well-taken, however. In particular, yes, there could be an argument about the best use of resources. My argument started from the reality, however, that these resources have already been used to do this. As far as I’m concerned, the argument over whether or not to embrace (or at least try to find appropriate uses for) golden rice and fortified bananas is a separate argument from the one about where best to put the funding.

      Again — and I tried to make it clear in the article, but I’m glad you pointed it out — I’m not sure a GE plantain is the BEST solution either. But since some scientists went and made it in good faith we should at least try to make use of the technology in whatever way it can be most helpful.

      • Chimel

        For what it’s worth,we are already manipulating the beta-carotene and other levels in non-GE carrot, red beet and Swiss chard, with several modern varieties of any colors between white, yellow, orange, red and purple. So basically, contesting fortified rice and plantain for their origin, means contesting the science of genetic engineering, which is a wrong argument, since the science behind it is neutral. The other argument whether it’s the best solution or not remains open for discussion, but contesters are not even using it, it’s one I made for the sake of an healthy debate.

        I think names are capital in these matters, I am sure a lot of thought went into “Golden Rice™.” And I kind of understand the original position of Greenpeace: Golden Rice was a total joke at first, you’d need to eat several kilograms of it to reach the recommended daily value. Golden Rice 2 has improved on that by replicating the beta-carotene gene many times to increase (pro?) vitamin A production, so you need to eat only your normal daily portion of rice to get the required vitamin A, but it’s still often abbreviated as Golden Rice, with the same negativity. By not using a different name, Golden Rice is still paying the price.

        Another point that was made for Golden Rice that didn’t seem to apply to some countries suffering from a lack of vitamin A was that it would be a public domain seed that anybody could grow, but some of these countries can’t grow rice and are mostly dependent on imports. However there are probably within the same regions countries who can grow rice, they could trade other natural resources, solar electricity, what have you not for it.

        This argument does not apply to plaintain, since the targeted population already grows and eats them as their main starch.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Sweet potatoes have some pest problems that may eliminate them from certain areas and carrots etc. prefer cooler climes than most banana producing areas. The article is not talking about people buying the plaintains. It is talking about getting plants to folks who already grow other types of bananas. I have grown several types of bananas on my farm for years and while my yield is erratic because I am too far north. {most of my sales is from selling the plants] I have never seen a seed in my bananas. Nor have I seen a volunteer seedling. I have read of hybrid bananas. But am fairly sure that hand pollination is used.

    • Kenrick

      Eric, you make a good point. I do not know a LOT about farming itself, which is why I stay away from making any proclamations about which crops are best for which area and whether or not ‘super’ bananas are, in fact, the BEST solution to the problem of vitamin A deficiency.

      However, simple logic would seem to me to dictate that the “plant other crops like sweet potatoes” arguments isn’t foolproof. Bananas are already a staple in the target region, and they are a staple for a reason — they’re grow well and produce well. So is it more challenging to biofortify a staple or to change the farming system to grow different foods? I don’t know.

      But it’s exactly the kind of question I feel like we’re being stopped from honestly examining because of the hardline resistance to GE crops.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Kenrick, exactly my point. Why pressure folks into growing crops with a higher risk of crop failure? When they are already successful at growing the bananas. The G.E. banana just gives them more bang for the buck. Should good farmers keep an open mind abouit new crop possibilities? Yup. Should their children be at higher risk of malnutrition because some elitists hate Monsanto etc. No

        • Kenrick

          So we’re just talking past each other. It wouldn’t have been a conversation in the comments section if we hadn’t. Thanks for forcing me to think a bit further on the topic and for the good comments.

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            Just not used to each other’s phrasing and probably reading to quickly.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    BTW, If the bananas are dwarf. Some could be grown in my greenhouses. Therefore I am volunteering my place. Also I have an official greenpeace prevention system. This system is sometimes known as “property owners with shotguns” It works quite well. I recommend it to researchers everywhere.

  • Rightbiotech

    Kenrick
    “All of the technology developed by corporations has been donated and are free of patents so poor farmers will be able to exploit this technology and millions, perhaps billions, of people, can benefit.”

    My understanding is that this material is not free of IP protection (namely patents), but that a royalty free license has been granted to farmers in countries that fit particular criteria, and provided that the material is not mixed with export product. The important distinction is that there is ongoing IP liability for farmers/countries outside of prescribed conditions.

  • EMI_GM

    I’d like to add my 2 cents on this: I’m a 3rd year Global Nutrition (ie a human nutrition major specializing in international development and nutrition) at the Agricultural and Environmental Faculty of McGill University (Montreal, Canada). One issue that was not mentioned: cultural acceptability. For people to be food secure, they must have access (social, economical, physical, etc.) to culturally acceptable, adequate quantity, high quality and nutritious food to live a healthy life. Now Golden Rice has been introduced to a few countries and it is the people that refuse to eat it. Not because of the GMO, they aren’t worried or concerned about that. They didn’t accept the colour. It freaked them out. And the taste is slightly different which they don’t like either. So we can have long debates about GMO safety (which, I’ve got to say, as someone studying in an institutional EXTREMELY FUNDED AND INFLUENCED by gmo- McGill was the first to develop a gmo animal, a goat producing spider web silk instead of wool- the actual studies in my opinion are less than adequate), but the fact is that whether the stuff is safe or not, the food won’t be eaten.

    i’ve heard some arguments saying that diversifying the diet and supplementation and dealing with corruption and poverty are better and more sustainable. I 100% agree. That said, these initiatives take A LOT of times. Heck, it can take several generations to see minute change. In the meanwhile, children are growing now. People are living unproductive lives due to micronutrient deficiencies. These “quick-fix” solutions may not be long term solutions, but maybe it will be the boost needed so that people can gain energy, brainpower, productivity and motivation (apathy is common amongst undernourished NO MATTER there situation- we see it with people eating disorders, in developed and in developing countries) to be more able to work with aid organizations, states, etc. and participate in creating more sustainable and long-term development solutions.

    Again, just my 2 cents. Let me know if you think my logic is flawed. What I’m basically saying is 2 fold: We need to make sure a product is not only safe but also culturally appropriate for a given population. We also need to balance the need for long-term development and immediate aid. Sometimes one is needed to initiate the other.

    • Your contention–that food has to be “culturally acceptable”–has zero to do with Golden Rice. You need to get your basic facts straight. Golden Rice is still in trials. It has not been introduced to any countries…zero in fact. No one has “refused to eat it”. That’s just a made up fiction. The current version of GR is not even the version that researchers hope will eventually be approved. So this premise/claim falls flat. GM foods are already eaten around the world, and in no case is there even one example in which a GM food was rejected for being “culturally unacceptable.” The original GM tomato failed because it didn’t taste very good…but not because it was genetically modified but because they used a rather tasteless non-GM variety of tomato to modify. GM sweet corn, GM papaya, GM soybeans, GM brinjal and other GM fruits and crops taste and look identical to the non-GM varieties on which they were based. In newer GM crops, such as flavor enhanced tomatoes now in trial, the resultant fruit/vegetable will be tastier and more nutritious. In short, your premise doesn’t make sense.

      • EMI_GM

        Ya I know about the first GM food product that didn’t taste good and of the other ones that followed suit. (And by the way the GMs on the market at present haven’t changed the color of the foods to the extent that golden rice has). But I also know that though Golden Rice is not on the market per se, human trials have and still are being conducted to test Golden Rice’s safety, efficacy, etc. What I’m saying is not bs. My professor, who is a researcher in the field of food and nutrition security is my source of information claiming that preliminary studies of Golden Rice acceptance in populations with Vitamin A deficiency. He’s not against GMOs at all. Nor am I. And ya, the Golden Rice formulation may change, but this is what they’re now. That doesn’t mean that this means we ignore Golden Rice, it’s just something worth considering if you want to make the product available to these populations.

        Anyways, look I study gmos (ie study in food security, nutrition and agriculture all of which require a very good understanding of the pros and cons of gmos) from people who have developed and/or are developing them. I am VERY aware of the advantages, safety tests done, etc. GMOs have done great things- from preventing the deaths of many calves to produce cheese (look it up if this surprises you), to saving lives of pigs and other animals who lost their pancreas and hence their lives to provide insulin for diabetics.

  • Wackes Seppi

    « “My experience shows that our
    issue is not that we don’t produce enough food, but that we do not
    possess the infrastructure to distribute it,” Bwambale said »?

    What experience does he have? Did he
    suffer from famine or malnutrition?

    These social scientists are pityful.
    What’s their science? Form an opinion, preferably a weird one, and
    more preferably one that is disconnected from reality, and build up
    some arguments to support it.

    If the biofortified banana works and
    reaches the Ugandan market, the Ugandans will choose, provided the
    Bwambale of this world will not badmouth it on the basis of their
    prejudices of the well-fed upper class.

    If the biofortified banana works, all
    existing Ugandan bananas of worth will be eligible for conversion
    into their GM variant.

    The first thing social scientists
    should do is to acquaint themselves with the subject matter they talk
    about. The first thing many of them do, is to ignore this precept.

  • Rodger Bodle

    I’ve been researching bananas since the early 1950’s and know a bit about Musa (bananas). I’ve also Travelled to the Middle East and seen how the otherhalf live in remote desert lands trying make a living to feed their families. I learned that over a million people die of starvation world wide every year and no matter what science does to eleviate the situation the problem is getting worse. Bill Gates realises this situation and has placed cash on the table to speed research in enhancing crop production but like most research – it takes time having failures or success in the hope of achievement sometime in the near future. As humans we care to take sides easily whether been positive or negative, we intend to knock or praise these achievements. My suggestion is to visit the S’de Boqer Agriculture Research Station in the Negev, the Campus of the Ben-Gurdon University of the Negev (Beer-Sheva) where they are succeeding in this type of research e.g. ‘Teaching people from third world countries to farm the desert and make a living for themselves. They are the heroes in this type of research.