AFRICA: Call on Gates Foundation to stop African GM banana program

Campaigners have called on the Gates Foundation to withdraw its support for a ‘biopirated’ GM banana program in Africa, and suspend its feeding trial on US students, stating the banana threatens both the health of the students and the future of African agriculture.


On Monday 15 February, Iowa State University graduate students delivered 57,309 petition signatures to ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences opposing human feeding trials for a genetically modified (GM) banana.


At the same time AGRA Watch members in Seattle, Washington delivered the same petition to the headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, denouncing plans to introduce the GM banana to Uganda and other African countries.


The petition was initiated in response to an email sent to the ISU student body in April 2014 inviting young women (ages 18-40) to eat genetically modified bananas in return for a $900 payment.


It asks the University and the Gates Foundation to cease supporting the GM banana study, including human feeding trials, and to change the trajectory for this type of research conducted at public universities.


The GM bananas are based on the Cavendish variety that dominates international trade, enriched with beta carotene. This follows the model of the now notorious ‘Golden Rice’, and has the purported goal of reducing Vitamin A deficiency in Uganda and other parts of the world. The ISU study, funded by the Gates Foundation, examines the uptake of beta carotene from the bananas and its conversion into Vitamin A in the body.


Bridget Mugambe, a Ugandan campaigner with Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, declared, “What is eluding the Gates Foundation is the existence of diverse alternative sources of Vitamin A rich foods that are easily planted and readily available in Uganda. The need for this Vitamin A rich GM banana is clearly assumed, and may sadly end up destroying a food that is at the very core of our social fabric.”


Alleged ‘biopiracy’ – DNA from Papua New Guinea cultivar


This is not the first time that the Gates Foundation has caused a furore over their GM bananas. Over $15 million have been used to develop these bananas with the aim of producing fruit with high levels of pre-Vitamin A, Iron and Vitamin E.


The genes for this GM banana are taken from an existing banana cultivar from Papua New Guinea, causing AGRA Watch to describe the project as “a clear example of biopiracy” – because the indigenous people that have developed the cultivar over millennia of cultivation have neither consented to its use in the GMO nor do they receive any benefit.


In addition, there are already hundreds of banana cultivars that are naturally high in beta carotene and grown around the tropics in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. Promotion of these existing cultivars could provide a simple answer to addressing the Vitamin A deficiency with no need to resort to genetic modification and the use of patented plant varieties.


Campaigners are also suspicious at the choice of the Cavendish banana, the cultivar which makes up 99% of current banana trade, for the project. The variety is highly susceptible to fungal and other infections, and may need to be sprayed dozens of times with agrochemicals each growing season.


By contrast existing red banana cultivars are much more disease resistant and suitable for chemical-free smallholder cultivation. The concern is that the real intention of the carotene-enhanced Cavendish may be to secure lucrative export markets as the new ‘superfood’ for western consumers.


Source: Fresh Plaza

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