By Tim Schwab
When news circulated that the first people to consume a new GMO banana would be student guinea pigs at Iowa State University, the university community had questions.
A recently released, redacted copy of the initial “informed consent document” that ISU lead researcher Wendy White gave to students doesn’t appear to mention that the GMO banana has never been approved as safe to eat by any regulatory agency anywhere in the world, that there have been documented human health risks associated with some GMOs or that there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs.
After public controversy swelled around the feeding trial, ISU’s ethical review boards worked with White to revamp the informed consent document to include some additional “bulleted points” about GMOs. What appears to have resulted is a list of one-sided science, misleading citations and industry-funded research, not an honest, accurate, impartial assessment of the potential risks associated with the GMO banana.
From what we can see in these redacted documents, it’s hard to believe that cash-strapped students, tempted by the $900 stipend, have all the information they need about the risks associated with eating the GMO banana. In December of last year, Food & Water Watch joined more than 100 groups on a letter sent to Iowa State University, questioning the ethical dimensions of the university’s experiment with student subjects and highlighting fundamental scientific flaws in the research.
ISU has quietly delayed the research—but only because of quality problems with the bananas it had shipped to ISU—and refused to engage with stakeholders or answer basic questions about the research and how it fits into the mission of a public university. University administrators, who have rebuffed good-faith invitations from concerned ISU students and faculty, recently penned an oddly defiant op-ed in the local newspaper that defended the research project and extolled the virtues of the GMO banana.
What are the supposed virtues? The banana—actually a cooking banana (think plantain) that is a staple in the East African diet—is supposed to give consumers a dose of Vitamin-A. GMO supporters at ISU have made extraordinary claims about the banana’s potential to improve public health in countries like Uganda, a target destination for the banana, where many people are Vitamin-A deficient.
The GMO banana is following in the footsteps of the biotech industry’s last Vitamin-A GMO, “golden rice.” This crop has so far proven to be a colossal scientific failure, unable to deliver adequate amounts of Vitamin-A.
Syngenta and Monsanto, which helped develop Golden Rice, hoped this “humanitarian” GMO would help break down the well-founded resistance that many Asian countries have to GMOs, which has kept the biotech industry shut out of these lucrative agricultural markets. The GMO banana, like golden rice, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a pro-GMO group that partners with biotech companies. If the GMO banana is successfully commercialized, the primary beneficiaries will not be Vitamin-A deficient Ugandans, but rather the biotech industry.
While it may be true that many Ugandans need more vitamin-A, the solution to the problem isn’t high-tech, risky, expensive, ineffective GMOs. The solution is a balanced diet.
So why is ISU promoting a technological solution that would require a radical shift in Uganda’s agricultural policy (the introduction of GMOs)? Could it have something to do with the millions of dollars that the biotech industry is pouring into the university’s research apparatus? Or the fact that corporate agribusiness representatives sit on governing boards of the university?
As conscientious and thoughtful ISU students and faculty continue to call on the school to have a conversation about the GMO banana feeding trial, including through a recent petition (which you should sign), it’s time that the school stop its stonewalling and start engaging with the public. Founded by Congress and still largely funded by taxpayers, ISU should first and foremost be serving the public, including the farmers and consumers that depend on solid, independent science that improves the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.