Genetically modified bananas spark controversy

Kendal Gast

A petition in regard to concerns about a transgenic feeding study being conducted at Iowa Sate was handed over to Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, on Feb. 15. 

It was a joint effort between AGRA Watch and a concerned, unnamed coalition of ISU students that garnered 57,309 signatures.

The feeding study, under the leadership of Wendy White, associate professor of food science and human nutrition, is looking at the bioavailability of Vitamin A when consumed under unspecified conditions in genetically modified bananas.

The participants in the study include 12 women, 18 to 40 years old. 

No one knows if any person has consumed a banana, or if any GM bananas are present on campus.

The study was funded by the Gates Foundation, which also funds the actual GM banana development at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.  AGRA Watch is a Seattle-based watch group that questions the Gates Foundation’s agriculture practices in Africa.

The testing group was notified at the end of 2014. This was when an open letter written by Bridget Mugambe, policy advocate of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, was sent to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, White of ISU and the Human-Institutional Review Board at Iowa State on Dec. 9, 2014.

This letter expressed concerns such as the general safety of genetically modified crops for humans, the relevance of testing on a population other than where the banana will end up, specifics of the study such as if fats will be given to the subjects and risks of maintaining diets that consume only one or two foods. 

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa then reached out to ISU students looking for signatures for their letter.

Rivka Fidel, graduate student in agronomy, is part of the unnamed coalition at Iowa State that was part of the students contacted by the alliance. 

“We were concerned that the people behind the study might not have done their due diligence and looked at the big picture,” Fidel said. 

The bananas, engineered to produce higher levels of beta carotene, are eventually going to be introduced into communities in Uganda, with the goal of solving malnutrition issues.

Hoping to have their questions answered, Fidel and the coalition contacted Wintersteen, along with the Human Institutional Review Board, soon after reading the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa letter in January 2015. 

Gabrielle Roesch, Ph.D. candidate in sustainable agriculture and sociology who is associated with Fidel, revealed the university’s response: “We haven’t ever received any answers from the administration.”

The group then hosted a conversation March 25, 2015, discussing transparency in research, in addition to the issue of malnutrition in Uganda and how the banana study would impact the communities involved. University administrators were invited. 

“A lot of people who were at the dialogue said, ‘Hey, why aren’t people who are doing this research or the administrators here? Why aren’t they a part of this discussion?’” Roesch said. 

Soon after the panel, Wintersteen met with some students and Roesch.

“They basically told us to knock it off,” said Hannah Dankbar, graduate student in community and regional planning and also part of the coalition.

When classes started up again last fall, the coalition drew up a petition and garnered about 1,000 signatures. 

This first petition asked questions such as who owns the technology, how are the safety concerns being met and if differences in physiology between the students and target group will be taken into account. The petition was then handed over to Wintersteen on Dec. 15. 

CREDO Mobile, a cellphone network company similar to Sprint Mobile but with philanthropic interests, soon discovered the first petition and subsequently crafted its own. Although it changed some of the language from the original petition for a global audience, this was the petition handed over last Monday.

A response from Wintersteen, the Gates Foundation and the Human-Institutional Review Board has yet to be heard or seen.