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Iowa GMO Banana Trial Halted

Twelve volunteers were supposed to one whole GMO banana each — but so far they have eat zero

Bananas (non-GM) at market in Vietnam (Bruno Morandi/Hemis/Corbis)
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It’s a long road from lab to farm to table for genetically modified foods. Depending on the country and the type of food, several different agencies might take a crack at assessing a GMO’s safety. But, despite continued controversy, more foods are getting through every year and showing up on plates around the world. 

As with many new technologies, there’s hope that some of those foods could improve on the status quo—that GMO crops could help fight hunger or provide better nutrition. But for one such potential game-changer, a banana tweaked to give people more vitamin A, that road just got longer.

Australian researchers, backed by support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, had already tested their genetically engineered banana in gerbils, and the bananas were scheduled to star in a trial with human subjects. Iowa State University researchers started looking for volunteers last summer for a trial that was supposed to happen in the fall semester: "Somewhere in Iowa, volunteers are earning $900 apiece by providing blood samples after eating bits of a banana kissed with a curious tinge of orange," NPR's Dan Charles reported back in July

But the trial still hasn’t started, reports Tony Leys for the Des Moines Register. A university spokeswoman "said she didn’t know why the trial was delayed or when or whether it would resume," he writes. James Dale, one of the Australians who worked on the bananas, told Leys in an email:

"[T]he nutrition study will go forward, but not until all of us are satisfied that the banana material meets quality standards. As you might imagine, given how you see bananas ripen in your own home, it has been a challenge shipping bananas from Australia to the US and having them arrive in good condition.

ISU’s Wendy White, a professor in food science, explained that the new banana uses a gene found in another type of banana that produces a lot of beta-carotene, the chemical precursor our bodies change into vitamin A. It’s intended for use in African countries where people struggle with vitamin A deficiencies. Other GMO-based efforts to boost the vitamin have met with controversy — the "golden rice" heralded as a fix has never been cultivated widely after activists destroyed test plots and a feeding trial in China ended in scandal for failing to disclose that the rice was genetically engineered, reports NPR. The researchers hope the banana will be different.

At the Register, Leys writes:

Residents of Uganda and nearby countries don't favor the type of sweet banana that naturally carries the extra beta-carotene, White said. So researchers have put the gene into a less-sweet type of banana that east Africans often use in cooking. White added that the new banana has no seeds, so there is no danger that the genetically modified plant would escape into nature.

Still, once the problem delaying this trial is cleared, the banana will have more hoops to jump through, according to NPR. African governments would need to approve, farmers would need to cultivate it and people would need to eat it to receive the benefit. For that last, they’ll need to accept that their bananas will look slightly different — that orange color comes from the extra beta carotene.

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