Has Genetic Engineering Finally Gone Bananas?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a super banana and it could be landing in a deprived region near you as early as 2020. The super banana is the fruity brainchild of researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) who set out to create a genetically engineered banana which would prevent blindness, death and malnutrition as a result of vitamin A deficiency in deprived nations. Led by Professor James Dale (who has been working on this project for 9 years), 5 Ugandan PhD students have helped to bring the super banana from fruition to human trials…


But aren’t bananas are already brilliant?


Well yes, yes they are. Bananas are already have a solid reputation as superfoods. According to workplace fruit delivery extraordinaries Fruitful Office, bananas are firmly the favourite fruit of Britain’s offices – and “not just because they’re easy to peel”. According to the company’s handy “fruitopedia”, bananas aren’t just great as easy snacks, they’re also high in energy-boosting natural sugars, potassium which lowers blood pressure and the protein trypotophan which converts into serotonin in the human bloodstream and actually makes banana eaters feel happier. How much more super can bananas be?


What’s better about the super banana?


Well, plenty more super if this super banana trial is anything to go by. These bananas have been genetically engineered to contain a higher level of beta-carotene. Once consumed, beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in the body. In a cool twist, this new addition to the banana’s genome means that, although they have the familiar yellow peel, inside, the banana flesh is a less familiar orange colour. By helping banana-eaters to enjoy better vitamin A levels, it’s hoped that these new super fruits will tackle some of the severe nutritional problems affecting deprived countries, particularly in East Africa.


What’s the problem?


The problem the banana builders are working to beat is that of vitamin A deficiency in deprived East African nations where cooking bananas (which are typically chopped and then steamed) are a common food stuff. Unfortunately, these cooking bananas are a poor nutritional source. They are very low in both vitamin A and iron. With a poor diet and widespread malnutrition, every mouthful counts, which is why QUT’s developers are keen to turn the humble banana into a super, super food by bringing its pro-vitamin A level up to 20 micrograms per gram.

It is hoped that enriching the banana varieties in the region (which sustain 70% of the population particularly in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo) will help to radically reduce levels of preventable childhood blindness (caused by vitamin A deficiency), malnutrition and infant mortality in the area.


What’s the next step?


The super banana is yet to land on East African shores and begin its good work. So far the super fruit has undergone trials in Mongolian gerbils which proved successful. Now a batch of the genetically engineered fruits has been flown to the US to undergo their very first human trials. With millions of dollars of funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation behind it, the project will now observe the effects of the super banana on human subjects at Iowa State University. If all goes well, Ugandan farmers could be growing these genetically engineered super bananas are early as 2020.


Isn’t genetic engineering controversial?


Genetic engineering (GE) isn’t without its controversies. Many people harbour serious concerns about both the moral and the physical consequences of adapting foods in this way. For example:


  • GE can have repercussions for people who suffer from food allergies as many GE foods contain substances and ingredients not usually contained in non-GE varieties.
  • It can also seriously upset the natural order of things, causing biodiversity to dwindle as GE fruit and vegetables become dominant.
  • Often engineered to be pest resistant, GE crops can spell disaster for their local ecosystems which would once have lived on the crops.


So are super bananas a force for good or evil?


It’s a mixed bag – and it’s a case of weighing up the potential pros and cons. The negative environmental impact vs the positive human impact. With rigorous testing currently in progress over in Iowa and potential for radical improvements in overall health, nutrition and infant mortality rates we can only hope that this overwhelmingly positive development has as few negative side effects as possible.

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