Genetically modified super banana proves GMOs can be healthy

Jun 17, 2014 at 11:05 a.m. ET
Image: Riderfoot/iStock/360/Getty Images

The anti-vaccine debate is getting all the attention these days but genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are an equally hot topic if you want to introduce some controversy into your next dinner party. Just ask a group of moms what they think about feeding GMO foods to their kids and you will draw plenty of fire. Yet while many of us well-nourished Americans despise them, perhaps not all GMOs are bad, as evidenced by a new life-saving project.

Scientists recently announced they have genetically modified bananas to up their vitamin A levels, something they say will save millions of malnourished people from dying or going blind from vitamin A deficiency (VAD).

Worldwide VAD is responsible for an estimated 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and up to 2 million deaths each year, with pregnant women and children being the hardest hit. Which, the researchers say, is even sadder because VAD is one of the most easily cured illnesses using a simple vitamin supplement. “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,” the project leader, Professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told AFP.

The project is similar to the development of Golden Rice two decades ago when normal rice was genetically modified to have 23 times more alpha- and beta-carotene, the precursors to vitamin A and distributed to the poor in several Asian countries. While it's not without controversy, it's widely been considered a success with estimates that it saves about 1 million children a year.

The enriched bananas have a similarly exciting potential says Lance Batchelor, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and lab manager for the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine — which is why he says people need to get over their fear of GMOs. "Of course the anti-GMO activists will organize against it. But their rhetoric is at odds with an overwhelming scientific consensus involving every major scientific organization in the world based on hundreds of studies," he says.

Batchelor points out that it takes only a small amount — just half a cup of Golden Rice a day — to save lives and if it can be infused into crops native to other countries, like bananas and plantains, then the small amount of effort would reap huge rewards. He adds that this isn't the only instance of Superman Plants, citing a project he worked on that put a Norwalk virus vaccine into a plant allowing poor countries that could not afford to make large amounts of the vaccine to be able to grow it.

In the meantime, the super banana is set to start clinical trials in the U.S. with the hopes of distributing it to African growers by 2020. The only visible change is that the flesh of the banana is more orange than white which the scientists don't anticipate being a problem when it's eventually rolled out.

Bananas make great pretend phones, slippery slapstick gags and of course the delicious base to banana splits, but the funny fruit isn't typically thought of as being lifesaving. But perhaps now they will finally earn their own "superfood" badge.

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