Genetically Engineered Bananas: Frankenfruit or Life-Saving Miracle?

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The next "super food" may not be an exotic berry or seed—it may the humble banana, thanks to new advancements in genetics that allow farmers to boost fruits' vitamin content.

Scientists recently announced they have modified bananas to up their vitamin A levels, something they say will save millions of malnourished people from dying or going blind from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Since they are using a technique that doesn't require any foreign genomes but rather just tweaking the existing banana DNA, the super banana is a "genetically engineered organism" (GEO) rather than the more controversial genetically modified organism (GMO). But are GEO fruits safe to eat? 

While many well-nourished Americans are leery of foods that have been genetically altered in any way, this is the perfect example that the science can be beneficial, says Lance Batchelor, Ph.D, a molecular biologist in the genetics department of the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine. 

"People need to get over their fear of GMOs," Batchelor says. "Of course the anti-GMO activists will organize against it. But their rhetoric is at odds with an overwhelming scientific consensus involving every major scientific organization in the world based on hundreds of studies," he says. Indeed, the FDA has repeatedly said genetically engineered foods are safe. This becomes especially important when talking about the millions of undernourished or starving people in the world. 

Worldwide, VAD is responsible for an estimated 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and up to 2 million deaths each year, with pregnant women and children being the hardest hit—a fact made even sadder because VAD is one of the most easily cured illnesses, needing only a simple vitamin supplement. “Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food,” the project leader, professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told AFP.

RELATED: 8 Surprising Sources of Nutrients

The enriched bananas are similar to the development of Golden Rice two decades ago when normal white rice was genetically modified to have 23 times more alpha- and beta- carotene—the precursors to Vitamin A—and distributed to the poor in several Asian countries. While it's not without controversy, the project has widely been considered a success with estimates that it saves about 1 million children a year.

Batchelor points out that it takes only a small amount of the vitamin A precursor—for instance just one enriched banana or 1/2 cup Golden Rice a day—to save lives, and by infusing other native crops, including plantains and other fruits, the potential to save lives is huge. He adds that this isn't the only instance of Superman plants, citing a project he worked on that put a Norwalk virus vaccine into a plant, allowing poor countries that could not afford to make large amounts of the vaccine to be able to grow it.

In the meantime, the super banana is set to start clinical trials in the U.S. with the hopes of distributing it to African growers by 2020. The only visible change is that the flesh of the banana is more orange than white.

What do you think about GEO fruits? Sound off in the comments below or tweet @Shape_Magazine!

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