Scientists in Iowa are moving ahead with a plan to pay several students $900 apiece – to eat three bananas.
The plan is causing quite a stir.
As the Des Moines Register reports, some of the bananas have been genetically modified to produce large amounts of beta carotene, a nutrient our bodies use to produce vitamin A. The hope is that, once approved, these bananas would be grown in Uganda, where vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem.
The trial is set to take place later this year at Iowa State University. The GM bananas were developed at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
$900 to eat 3 bananas?
While it might sound absurd, it’s not entirely uncommon for subjects to be paid for participating in research, according to the Food and Drug Administration, so long as the risks are clearly stated. It’s considered a recruitment incentive, not a benefit.
And as far as compensation for these kinds of studies goes, $900 is not unheard-of.
According to the site CenterWatch, a website that keeps track of clinical trials, a California trial of an eye ointment for treating bags under the eyes offered compensation of up to $1,840 per person, and a Florida trial of a tobacco product offered up to $1,980.
What about safety?
In the US, the safety of new GMO crops is typically determined by showing they have a similar nutrient and toxin content to that of the conventional crops we eat – a principle known as substantial equivalence.
Some countries (for example, in Europe) also require animal studies before GM crops can be approved, but the US doesn’t regulate GM food differently than foods developed by other processes.
Uganda is one of several African countries that signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, part of an agreement that applies the precautionary principle, which includes “taking into account risks to human health.”
The banana trial may be an attempt to help satisfy this principle.
A call for greater transparency
Some GMO opponents are not happy about the research. They claim the researchers have not been transparent about the trial or its possible risks. A few months ago, a petition with more than 57,000 signatures that calls for the trial to be suspended was delivered to both ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Gates Foundation.
“We, the undersigned, ask that the Dean of Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, answer students’ and Ames community members’ questions about the current Gates Foundation-funded transgenic banana human trials underway at Iowa State University,” the petition reads.
It includes questions such as, “How have safety concerns been addressed, and what risks were study participants informed of when they agreed to take part in the study?” and “Who owns or will own the transgenic banana technology?”
There’s a lot at stake, as these bananas could potentially help solve a major nutrition problem.
Fighting vitamin A deficiency
The study is being led by ISU food science professor Wendy White. In April 2014, White and her colleagues sent out an email calling for a dozen female volunteers to take part in the trial. (It’s not clear why they had to be female, but our guess is that pregnant or nursing women and their children are especially vulnerable vitamin A deficiency.)
They would be paid $900 to eat three bananas each – one of which was genetically modified – over the course of four days, and undergo blood tests. More than 500 women responded to the ad, and 12 were selected, White said, according to The Des Moines Register.
The goal of the research is to provide a staple source of vitamin A for communities in the developing world.
“In Uganda and other African countries, vitamin A deficiency is a major contributor to deaths in childhood from infectious diseases,” White wrote in a statement her university released in 2014. “Wouldn’t it be great if these bananas could prevent preschool kids from dying from diarrhea, malaria or measles?”
Critics have argued that there are other bananas that are a good source of vitamin A. But these bananas tend to be of a sweet variety that Ugandans and residents of other African countries don’t consume as much. That’s why the researchers decided to take a gene from these bananas and put it into a less-sweet variety that is commonly used by Ugandans for cooking.
But this isn’t the first time GMO advocates and proponents have clashed over the development of a crop meant to prevent vitamin A deficiency.
The golden rice saga
In the early 2000s, scientists developed a variety of GM rice, called golden rice, which contained many times the level of beta carotene found in normal rice. Golden rice was made available for free to subsistence farmers in developing countries.
But activists shut it down by claiming the rice was unsafe or ineffective. Scientists conducted a trial where they fed golden rice to children in China, and it turned into a national scandal, as NPR reported previously.
Even if the GM bananas don’t face the same backlash that golden rice did, there are a number of roadblocks before they can make it into the hands of farmers in Uganda.
As NPR reported, “For the banana to have any impact at all, governments would have to approve it, farmers would have to grow it, and ordinary people would have to be persuaded to eat orange-tinted bananas” (since beta carotene is an orange pigment).
Still, these bananas are just one of many approaches to get more vitamin A into the Ugandan diet.