Simultaneous demonstrations in Ames and Seattle highlight controversy surrounding Gates Foundation-funded Transgenic Banana Study at Iowa State University
Ames, IA and Seattle, WA: On Monday February 15th, Iowa State University graduate students will deliver 57,309 petition signatures to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at ISU while AGRA Watch members deliver the same petition to the headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. (The petitions will be delivered at 9:30am PST and 11:30am CST.) T
he petition asks the University and the Gates Foundation to cease supporting the transgenic banana study, including human feeding trials, and to change the trajectory for this type of research conducted at public universities. Petition signatures were collected by ISU graduate students, AGRA Watch and CREDO Action. With the purported goal of reducing Vitamin A deficiency in Uganda and other parts of the world, genetically modified bananas are enriched with beta carotene. The study examines the extent to which the bananas’ beta carotene is converted to Vitamin A in the body and absorbed by consumers. The study is funded by the Gates Foundation. The CREDO petition is a follow-up to a petition launched in 2015 by ISU graduate students who, in partnership with AGRA Watch, collected over 1000 signatures, that were delivered in December.
These petitions respond to an email that was sent to the ISU student body in April 2014 inviting young women (ages 18-40) to eat genetically modified bananas in return for $900. This study is one of the first human feeding trials of a genetically modified product, and there has been no prior animal testing of this product. Thus, ISU students are being asked to be the first to consume a product of unknown safety. The study is not being conducted in a transparent manner, and concerned ISU community members have not been able to receive answers about the research design, risks, nature of the informed consent given by the subjects, and the generalisability of the study. The safety concern is not limited to students or activists. Dr. David Schubert, a molecular biologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, said, “Beta carotene is chemically related to compounds that are known to cause birth defects and other problems in humans at extremely low levels, and these toxic chemicals are possible if not likely by-products of plants engineered to make large amounts of beta carotene. Since there is no required safety testing of the banana or any other GMO, doing a feeding trial in people, especially women, should not be allowed. It is both unethical and immoral, particularly because there are several naturally occurring varieties of banana that are safe and have higher levels of beta carotene than the GM varieties.”
Beyond the possible harm to students, the banana may have negative long-term impacts on Ugandan agriculture. Many banana varieties serves as staples in Ugandan diets. Ugandans have the right to have access to safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food. A coalition of over 100 U.S., African and international organisations expressed concerns in an Open Letter that genetically-modified bananas are not meant to serve such a purpose, and that this crop will have an adverse affect on Ugandan agriculture, food security and food sovereignty. 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.”
The demonstrations come on the heels of a widely-reported new critique of the Gates Foundation, commissioned by UK-based Global Justice Now. In the report entitled “Gated Development”, the organisation argues that “big business is directly benefitting, in particular in the fields of agriculture and health, as a result of the foundation’s activities.” The report goes on to claim that the foundation creates “a corporate merry-go-round where the [foundation] consistently acts in the interests of corporations”.
Mariam Mayet, Director of African Centre for Biodiversity (South Africa) stated, “We in Africa vehemently oppose the introduction of GM crops plants into our food and farming systems that is being carried out in the name of the public good. Once again we would like to draw attention to the conclusions of the 400 global experts of the IAASTD report, who are under no illusion that the current obsession with yield and productivity (personified in the extreme by GMOs) is a panacea for a more ecologically sustainable and equitable food system.”