Going Bananas Over GMOs

bananas.jpgIn the U.S. we consume over 10 pounds of bananas per person each year. They’re high in B6, manganese, vitamin C, potassium... and easy to pack.  A lot of people around the world peel one daily, sometimes during crucial nutrient-lacking seasons.

In short, they are a delightful fruit, but they have a few skeletons in their closet. Laborers, rural economies and the environment may beg to differ on the amazingness of the banana, on account of the environmental impact of the banana trade. But one arguably more catastrophic secret about bananas (based on the livelihoods that they support in equatorial countries) is that one of our most favorite varieties, the Cavendish, may soon meet its fungal wilt-induced end.

While agricultural science can take pride in creating the Cavendish, it also created the inevitability of the Cavendish’s potential doom (they lack seeds and can only be reproduced by cloning, leaving them susceptible to diseases that genetic diversity might prevent).

Now, a new potential development in biotechnology may create a whole other set of problems. Researchers at Iowa State University are moving into human-testing trials on the “super banana:” a fruit genetically engineered to have extra beta carotene. This may seem innocuous at the least, and revolutionary, but it has upset some of the international communities for which it is intended. While the researchers are quick to point out that they are enhancing the banana’s already existing properties as opposed to adding in transgenic properties, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) stridently opposes sending this banana to its intended market in Uganda. From an AFSA press release:

At AFSA, we are vehemently opposed to GM crops. Africa and Africans should not be used as justification for promoting the interest of companies and their cohorts. We do not need GM crops in this changing climate. What we need is the diversity in our crops and the knowledge associated with them,” commented Dr. Million Belay, AFSA Coordinator.

Let’s follow the logic of that statement. GM bananas, sterile fruits highly dependent on skilled and knowledgeable labor, come into the market, out-compete existing crops, and eventually make current banana producers obsolete. New adopters are dependent on a U.S. technology. Genetic diversity is lost, and so too is Mother Nature’s built in resilience to disease and climate. It’s a slippery Green Revolution slope that the AFSA, and many other groups see all too well.

The scale of internationalopposition to GMOs does not necessarily bode well for this technology in its quest to “feed the world” (a slogan we think is also used to justify egregious profits, environmental degradation and human abuses). And here at home we’ve got our own battles to fight on this front. A recent Congressional subcommittee hearing over Rep. Mike Pompeo’s (R-Kan.) H.R.4432, known to those who oppose it as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, which would give the FDA the sole authority to allow companies voluntary labeling of GMOs, and H.R. 1699, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act addressed this issue head on. Mary Ellen Kustin of Environmental Working Group gives a synopsis of the two opposing viewpoints:

The reality is that the DARK Act would undo labeling laws that some states have already put on their books. But it goes further than that. The bill would actually make it harder for the FDA to require mandatory national labeling of GMOs. . .

On the flip side of the coin, some companies that produce food without the use of GMOs go out of their way to have a third party like the Non-GMO Project certify their products just so they can label accordingly."

Those who support DARK want companies to be able to do whatever they please when it comes to GMO labeling. Those who support H.R. 1699 want standardized mandatory labeling. Colin O’Neil, Center for Food Safety’s Director of Government Affairs, issued a statement about the proceedings. While Congress had in saying that labeling standards need Federal oversight, O’Neil was incredulous about the way members wanted to go about this:

What we heard today was overwhelming support by Members of the Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee for a national labeling standard. The Committee further recognized the need to address consumer confusion in the marketplace resulting from the misleading use of the term ‘natural.’ However, what that national standard looks like and how the marketing term ‘natural’ should be dealt with, were left up for debate.  

Check out the full hearing at the video below. If you are concerned about GMO’s and want them labeled or out of your food supply, as the AFSA statement indicates, you are not alone. Some estimates put GMO labeling support at up to 90% of the US population.

PHOTO: via flickr

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