Yes, We Need GMO Bananas

There was a lot of activity regarding GMO bananas back in February, when Iowa State University was going to run a study on the human consumption of GE bananas. This study was protested by a petition that received 57,000 signatures. Several pieces have been written by those who oppose the tests, and GMOs in general, all of which expose the absurdity of the anti-GMO movement. I will mainly focus on one article, written by Eric Holt Gimenez for Huffpost Green, titled “Yes, We Need No GMO Bananas”.

Gimenez’s article is based on the premise that the petition signed by the protestors should not be summarily dismissed as anti-science quackery. Of course, for someone who works for an organization that vehemently opposes GE technology, this is the angle that he would want to promote. Food First is a non-profit that works against the industrialization of food production. They openly criticize the Green Revolution for promoting ‘technological intensification’, as if this were a bad thing. The worry, for organizations like Food First, is that the Green Revolution, although responsible for saving billions of lives, contributed to the over use of pesticides and removed food sovereignty. However, to go from this concern to a rejection of technological intensification is, to put it mildly, patently absurd. Pesticides are a necessary part of agriculture, therefore being able to make these pesticides safer – by intensifying the use of technology – would actually be a good thing. In fact, GMOs have reduced the use of many pesticides and have replaced them with relatively benign ones. As for food sovereignty, if this was really related to the Green Revolution, the problem has little to do with technology, but instead with our legal systems. So, instead of arguing against technological advancement, maybe Food First should focus more on the legal and economic factors which help destroy food sovereignty. Assuming the lack of food sovereignty is currently as bad as they claim it to be.

Gimenez begins by saying the move towards testing is, in some sense, something to praise. This is because, as he claims “the GE industry has yet to carry out any epidemiological or regional ecological studies to assess GE’s adverse impact on public health or the environment.” Guess what, here is a list of over 400 studies conducted on the health and environmental safety of GE products. More studies than these exist, since the database is not updated regularly, but the point should be clear enough. Anti-GMO critics continuously claim that these products have not been tested, and yet this is simply and utterly false. Which makes Gimenez’s statement, that we have all been part of an “uncontrolled industrial experiment”, simply mind boggling.

Of course, Gimenez, though happy that there is finally a test – though an absurd assertion given the prevalence of GMO research – is unhappy that the ISU study was directed at the beneficial aspects of the GMO banana. In other words, the scientists wanted to know whether the beta carotene in the banana was actually having a beneficial effect. Gimenez, also downplays the role in which this petition was worried about the health effect of GMO bananas. AGRA watch, another ideological non-profit, makes it clear that they were concerned about the safety and environmental impact of the GMO banana, which is why they promoted the petition. The most depressingly hilarious concern is raised by David Schubert. Schubert, who has a PhD in immunology, and works for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, should know better. However, as this piece written in 2014 shows, Schubert is ideologically opposed to GE technology. He even raises the dreaded specter of Agent Orange, as a reason to reject GE food, which, in fact, is not related to GE food at all. Here is Schubert’s comment to AGRA watch regarding the banana study:

Beta carotine [sic] 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.

If it isn’t obvious why this statement by Schubert is word salad, let me be more precise. For one, I have no clue whether or not beta carotene production, within plants, is linked to the production of chemicals which are responsible for birth defects. I have looked, and can’t find anything. Sadly, Schubert never mentioned where he got this information either. I also like the use of the word toxic, serving no more of a purpose than to stoke fear in those who already ideologically agree with him. Again, wouldn’t it have been nice if he had mentioned what this toxic chemical compound really is? Secondly, the gene that was used to make these bananas was taken from… other bananas. Therefore, the production of beta carotene in these bananas is similar to if not identical to the production of beta carotene in these other banana varieties. So, if Schubert is right, there should be an increased rate of birth defects for those who eat bananas with high levels of beta carotene, and yet he explicitly states that naturally occurring high levels of beta carotene in bananas are safe! Clearly, having a PhD doesn’t make one immune to poor argumentation.

Getting back to Gimenez, his next paragraph takes the cake for bold unsupported assertions. He claims that the creation of this GMO banana is running under to false assertions; that Ugandans will eat the banana, and that there aren’t bananas high in beta carotene already there. Again, no sources are given to provide evidence against either of these assumptions. The first assumption, is one for which there is no clear answer, but this should not dissuade researchers from trying. Other vitamin A solutions have failed to make an impact, so why not try to take a staple crop used in those regions, primarily by the poor and marginalized, and fortify it? The second assumption is dismissed by Gimenez, but again, he is simply wrong. You have to ask yourself, if those varieties exist in Uganda, why are Ugandans still vitamin A deficient? The problem is that there are economic, ecological, and cultural reasons for why these bananas are not grown and eaten. The modified banana is a staple crop for poor farmers in Uganda, who are with the highest rates of vitamin A deficiency. Therefore, it is more likely for Ugandans to adopt this strategy than to begin growing a new type of banana, which is economically and ecologically not practical, and culturally not wanted.

Gimenez then turns conspiratorial. The only reason Cornell University is arguing against these protestors is because they received money from Bill and Melinda Gates! Cornell isn’t the only institution against the protests, considering that the majority of scientific institutions support the safety and efficacy of GE products, and not all of them receive Gates money. Gimenez then claims that these institutions are stymieing public debate, but are they? Trying to educate the public about the scientific consensus of the safety of GE products is only seen as stymieing if you work on the assumption that GMO food is bad in the first place. Conspiracy theorists abound though, for example, this article claims that Bill and Melinda Gates are modifying this banana so that they can profit off of it. Ignoring the fact that this GMO banana is being developed by the Ugandan government, and is not being patented. The new theory is that this product would be an open-door to allow for the release of further GE products, but if there is no reason to fear GMO food this isn’t really a problem.

This gets to the next part of Gimenez’s problem, that we shouldn’t just focus on GE technology to help fix hunger. This is because hunger and vitamin A deficiency is also social and political issue. But who seriously ignores this fact? After all, why else are the scientists working directly with the Ugandan government? This is a frequent complaint of pseudo-scientists, that somehow academics are blinded to the holistic processes of health and safety. This, of course, is nonsensical spin. However, this spin has an official seal. As anti-GMO activists frequently point to an IAASTD report, as Gimenez does in this piece, which claims that we shouldn’t be investing all our time in GMO technologies. For a full debunking of this report I recommend this article. I will add, however, that this report, released in 2009, is a bit outdated. It is also alone. One lonely outdated report is, well, useless, scientifically speaking. Especially a report which ignores the large scientific consensus surrounding such foods.

Here is the heart of Gimenez’s position:

Science is a negotiation – an iterative process rooted in asking questions, in testing hypotheses and counter-hypotheses. Thus it is crucial that scientists and students of science, regardless of status, expertise or background, be able to ask critical questions regarding each other’s work without fear of vitriolic retribution or retaliation. The GE proponents’ over-simplified approach — and their attacks against anyone who questions them are not only unscientific — pose risks to us all.

This superficially seems like a great idea. But at what point is something so true, so beyond doubt, that systematic questioning and protestation become a hindrance to scientific progress as opposed to a integral part of its functioning? Creationists deserve ridicule because they are wrong. It is not that I am critical of questioning itself, instead I am critical of bullshit. If anti-GMO activists continue to trot out tired and debunked claims, then I am going to continue to counter their propaganda. It is funny how Gimenez’s dire prediction can work in the opposite direction. If Gimenez is wrong, his anti-science fear mongering, and promotion of questioning in the face of overwhelming evidence, will pose a risk to us all, especially to those kids who are needlessly going blind due to vitamin A deficiency. This is the pseudo-scientists appeal for open-mindedness, but as the brilliant Carl Sagan famously said, “Be open minded, but not so open that your brain falls out”. It is time we put the brains back into environmental activism.

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