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Biotech Medicine Science

"Super Bananas" May Save Millions of Lives In Africa 396

Posted by samzenpus
from the a-banana-a-day dept.
schwit1 (797399) writes "A super-enriched genetically engineered banana will soon go through its first human trial, which will test its effect on vitamin A levels, Australian researchers said Monday. The project plans to have the special banana varieties — enriched with alpha and beta carotene which the body converts to vitamin A — growing in Uganda by 2020. The bananas are now being sent to the United States, and it is expected that the six-week trial measuring how well they lift vitamin A levels in humans will begin soon."
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"Super Bananas" May Save Millions of Lives In Africa

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  • by NotDrWho (3543773) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:27AM (#47245633)

    GENETICALLY ENGINEERED???? That's the boogeyman under the bed!! We must grow organic and all be vegans. If the poor Africans are starving, they just need to go to their local Whole Foods and buy some food.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jellomizer (103300)

      GMO Food is to Liberals as Global Warming is to Conservatives.

      • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:42AM (#47245787) Homepage Journal

        GMO Food is to Liberals as Global Warming is to Conservatives.

        Really? What's the positive argument for global warming?

        • by Overzeetop (214511) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:45AM (#47245813) Journal

          More beach time, fresh oceanfront property to sell and develop, Government grants to try and fix global warming! Every disaster is a business opportunity! What's not to love?

        • probably a net increase in arable land for canada and siberia as northern growing seasons lengthen, might lose some fox pelt resources when the tiles flip to green though.
          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            probably a net increase in arable land for canada and siberia as northern growing seasons lengthen

            [citation needed]

            You're going to have to show some evidence that land will actually be useful for farming. That argument has never held water, nor crops.

        • Millions of hectares of newly viable farmland in Russia and Canada, while Florida could disappear entirely.

        • by Shakrai (717556)

          What's the positive argument for global warming?

          It's going to happen regardless of what we do, so perhaps it makes more sense to plan for it than it does to impose huge artificial increases on energy costs that ultimately accomplish nothing other than to force down standards of living?

          • "Global warming" is not a binary condition, it will only be as bad as we allow it to be.

            Also cleaner energy sources and carbon sequestration are much cheaper than floating/domed cities and a massive outbreak of war that will cut off access to much of the fossil fuel pretty damn quick.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jellomizer (103300)

        To explain further. We like to think our favorite political group is more knowledgeable in science then your proponents are, however that isn't the case, both will accept and reject science based on how it goes for or against their political stance.

        In General Terms Liberals Look for Problems and try to propose solutions. So if there is anything stated as good they will dig into it to find faults and try to fix them. Now this could be a good thing, as fixing problems tends to make things better... However o

      • by Ken_g6 (775014) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:58AM (#47245949) Homepage

        GMO Food is to Liberals as Global Warming is to Conservatives.

        I'm a Liberal, and I accept GMO food. But I'm also a Slashdotter, so what I can't accept is patented GMO food.

        • by ChromeAeonium (1026952) on Monday June 16, 2014 @11:37AM (#47246373)

          I'd like to hear your practical alternative then. Plant breeding and genetic engineering are not easy, and the deregulation process for GMO crops can cost millions of dollars. If you're volunteering to foot the bill, I'm sure we can do away with plant patents. In the meantime, at the end of this year Monsanto's first GE soybean patent expires, which is how I thought patents were supposed to work (as in, develop something, recoup R&D costs and make profit, invention falls to the public). Copyright my be fucked to high heaven, but this is looking like it works to me, so perhaps you could elucidate the flaw you perceive here.

          Also, even non-GMO crops can be patented. Plant breeders and genetic engineers, surprisingly, don't like to work for free. Various stonefruit hybrids (pluots, nectaplums, and plumcots) are patented because they took decades of hard work to develop. The Honeycrisp apple, one of the most popular apples, recently went off patent. The royalties from it went to support the breeding program which later produced my favorite apple variety, the SnowSweet apple (the world might not have that apple without patents). There are patented pineapples (like the Mele Kalima variety, which is one of the most amazing fruits I've ever had) and pawpaws (like the Shenandoah variety) developed by very small operations simply to protect the developer's work. A lot of the ornamental and floriculture industry uses plant patents. So tell me, if if those of us in plant improvement cannot patent our work, what do you propose as a fair system for all?

          • by BronsCon (927697) <social@bronstrup.com> on Monday June 16, 2014 @12:34PM (#47246917) Journal
            How about this, a compromise: You create a GMO strain of a plant, great, go ahead and patent it. If I replicate your patented strain and sell the seed, sue me. If I happen to be growing a similar plant, downwind of a neighboring farm that grows your strain, and the resultant seed from that contains some of the genetic material from your strain, then sue nature because I didn't do that shit.
      • by i kan reed (749298) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:59AM (#47245965) Homepage Journal

        How many liberals faking scientific literacy making that argument do you see on slashdot? Global warming denialism is more endemic to American conservatives than any of the commonly cited stereotypes about liberals.

        That's not to say we deny the existence or alignment of the idiots, but we do know they're idiots.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Let me clue you in:
        GMOs are to science what AGW is to Science.
        because, it's science.
        Different specialties, but still science.

        If you are an ignorant sheep, then you think AGW is not real even though it's a fact.
        If you are an ignorant sheep, then you are afraid of GMOs, even though you are clueless about Chemistry..

        Political alignment is irrelevant.

    • by jedidiah (1196)

      The funny thing is that we already have a suitable super food in this area. Creating it did not require Frankenstein style genetic meddling. It has just as long of a shelf life as bananas if not greater. It's especially easy to preserve for long periods.

      Of course it has the sin of being something you can't patent or get a monopoly on.

      • Uh, usually if you're making an argument by example, you're supposed to cite that example.

      • So why did the flat-earth lobby destroy test fields of golden rice (same modification as this new banana), which is open-source and has nothing to do with Monsanto?

        • by ChromeAeonium (1026952) on Monday June 16, 2014 @11:47AM (#47246457)

          Because the argument that GMOs are these evil terrible things that you should totally give us your money to fight is going to be a harder sell once you've got news stories talking about how they are saving the lives of children whose only crime was being born in the wrong part of the world. Golden Rice is a big [greenpeace.org] deal to [navdanya.org]many [organicconsumers.org] in the anti-GMO movement, which just goes to show you how little the 'not anti-biotech just anti-Monsanto' line goes.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      When GM pot is introduced in Washington or Colorado, hippie heads will explode.

    • by harvey the nerd (582806) on Monday June 16, 2014 @11:06AM (#47246039)
      Beta carotene is only one of hundreds of carotenoids. We know that there are other carotenoids with important properties for human health e,g, lutein, lycopene, astaxanthin.

      Better to think of beta carotene as a marker in foods rather than a be-all, end-all carotenoid. Also balance with other oil soluble and anti-oxidant nutrients can be important.
    • Just use drones to drop some of the huge food surplus we produce on them.

    • by AC-x (735297)

      Yeah, the actual argument used against this kind of GMO use is that it would cost the same to treat the root cause of the problem by teaching people to grow a wider range of crops and the importance of a balanced diet, rather than this stop-gap solution that provides no long-term change (they're still not eating a balanced diet) and makes people reliant on western industrial food conglomerates with extremely poor human rights records.

      Got any non-strawman arguments against that?

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday June 16, 2014 @11:53AM (#47246505)
      Seven minutes, and we've gone from "Hey, miraculous biomedical development possible" to "Fuck hippies."

      I mean, have hippies even started protesting this? I realize that straw man arguments about "Africans should just go to whole foods" is sometimes all one can contribute, and sometimes mods don't want to read more than two posts down before dumping their points, but fucking hell, come on slashdot.

      And it IS a fucking strawman argument. We all know (or should know) that no bit of technology is completely benign. By focusing on the most idiotic of criticisms, that might make us feel smart and also make us feel better about the technology, but we're drowning out actual concerns. Look at golden rice which did the beta carotene thing first [wikipedia.org]. Yes yes, greenpeace blah blah blah, ignore that little section. There are concerns about whether it will affect the fertility of the soil. Perhaps that's not a concern with bananas, I don't know, maybe some agriculturally-leaning slashdotter could pipe in after the obligatory "fuck GMO protesting hippies."

      Loss of biodiversity, and establishing an entrenched monoculture of food is a bigger concern with GMO. Bananas were decimated by disease before [chttp]. It would really suck if everyone was planting this one strain of super bananas, and they became a necessary staple for vitamin A in parts of the world and we consider the problem solved and don't bother trying to improve nutrition in other ways. Then the Panama disease came and killed them all in the way it has done before, and suddenly we're left with a sudden serious shortage of vitamin A foods. If you're wondering, that causes blindness, impaired immune function, cancer, and birth defects. [wikipedia.org]

      See? It's entirely possible for people to have more concerns than "OMG, scary frankenfoods!" I'm not a hippie. I don't have a solution though. I mean, do they have whole foods there? Because if they did have a whole foods, that would probably be a better solution than potentially creating this [cpcache.com]. (kidding)

      Bottom line, ignore the lunatic fringes in any controversey. It's fun to point and laugh at idiots, but you'll usually ignore the more reasonable people who might be on that side of the argument, those reasonable people might be right, in which case, you'd take second place in the idiot contest.
      • by ChromeAeonium (1026952) on Monday June 16, 2014 @12:17PM (#47246733)

        I mean, have hippies even started protesting this?

        Not yet, far as I know, but since every GMO that has ever made it close to commercialization has been protested, I don't see why this should be any different.

        And it IS a fucking strawman argument.

        It would be if there were not first world activists who actually think that the poorest people on earth should just go buy some healthier foods. There is a reason why people who have made it their life's work to combat starvation and malnutrition are taking the route of Golden Rice and other biofortified crops (and it must also be said that the non-GMO biofortified crops escape all the controversy, almost as if the arguments against the GMO ones have nothing to do with their actual properties and everything to do with an irrational bias against their origin)

        There are concerns about whether it will affect the fertility of the soil.

        No, there aren't. Genetic engineering is not a black box. I don't see how beta carotene production is going to impact the soil. Sounds like a bullshit claim some clueless anti-GMO activist pulled out the usual place. I highly doubt this rice will be any different than any other rice, on average, in terms of soil impact.

        ignore the lunatic fringes in any controversey

        If we do that then there is no controversy. This is like creationism, or vaccine rejection. You can reject certain phylogeny, or take issue with particular vaccines, and you can make valid criticisms about certain aspects of some GMOs, but the movements as a whole are without merit.

  • A new Monoculture? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cant_get_a_good_nick (172131) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:27AM (#47245637)

    Isn't the banana population under serious threat because of monoculture? I remember the current banana cultivar - the Cavendish - is under threat because of lack of disease resistance because of monoculture. The previous well used cultivar, the Gros Michel, was replaced because it lost to a disease threat - also due to monoculture. The article didn't mention anything about plant disease resistance.

    • by OzPeter (195038) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:48AM (#47245851)

      Isn't the banana population under serious threat because of monoculture?

      That maybe so in western culture, but somehow I don't think that the banana being used here "The Highland or East African cooking banana" is affected.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      TELL ME ABOUT IT. There are about 400 varieties of bananas in India and those Pasty Limeys picked only one, the Cavendish, to grow everywhere else around the world. No wonder we're talking about the whole crop being very prone to one disease wiping all global stock of bananas.

    • by JWW (79176)

      Then genetically engineering new strains of bananas is a good thing, no?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It's because bananas without seeds are clonally propagated. It's not just monoculture, it's a single clonal organism. However, people tend to like them without seeds. Otherwise you go from peeling bananas to smashing them and frying them up (because uncooked is just too difficult to eat).

      https://www.google.com/search?site=&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1680&bih=963&q=banana+seeds&oq=banana+seeds&gs_l=img.3..0l8j0i5l2.292.1766.0.1981.12.9.0.3.3.0.217.929.6j2j1.9.0....0...1ac.1.46.img..0.

  • The science is great (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fustakrakich (1673220) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:28AM (#47245647) Journal

    But who owns the patents? Or is this one a freebie?

    • by jythie (914043) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:41AM (#47245779)
      Good question, though it looks like in this case it might actually be a freebie since the organization bankrolling it is a charity.

      Though yeah, in the past 'for their own good' patented crops have been introduced to poor regions and then farmers end up locked into an expensive seed supply.
      • by Overzeetop (214511) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:46AM (#47245831) Journal

        Or a really rich charity. Never underestimate the greed of "non-profits."

      • by Shatrat (855151)

        Bananas aren't propogated by seeds.

  • by OzPeter (195038) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:29AM (#47245663)

    Why the fuck the TFS quotes a source from Phys.org, when you can straight to QUT and get THEIR press release Super bananas – world first human trial [qut.edu.au] (which has a lot more detail)

  • by OglinTatas (710589) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:31AM (#47245679)

    One of the problems with banananas is that food crop bananas are clones, and so as a monoculture the crops are prone to complete loss by disease.

    Unrelated, but mentioned in the article, everything that is not dark green or orange that you add vitamin A to will take on an orange hue. That is not a surprise. Also not a problem.

  • "Natural" Bananas continu to change their genetics and bacteria continues to swap genes from species to species with the bananas and it goes un--tested!!!

  • Looks like it's time for a gritty Bananaman reboot!

  • by dave562 (969951) on Monday June 16, 2014 @10:45AM (#47245815) Journal

    File this under donotwant. Unlike most vitamins, A is not water soluble and can build up to toxic levels in the body. Of special importance to Africans is that it also makes the body more susceptible to sun burns.

  • Aside from considerations against or pro GMO, the bigger problem of all is that in Africa, besides bananas being (cheap) staple to millions, there are hundreds of natural variations, and their natural diversity is astounding. Besides this, lets not forget the Gros Michel was wiped out by a global disease, and the Cavendish seems headed the same way. There is also issues about cross-pollination with the local species. Seems a very misguided idea to mess with that.
  • One tiny tablet, and you get all the vitamins you need, and then some.

  • Then again, a Viagra enriched banana has real marketing potential...

    I call patent firsties!!!

  • Solves nothing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jurgen (14843) on Monday June 16, 2014 @11:18AM (#47246161)

    So the "super" in these bananas is extra Vitamin A (alpha and beta carotene). But in general this solves nothing because those people who are Vitamin A deficient probably can't afford the bananas and/or don't have the resources to grow them... if they did they could just as easily grow (for example) Papayas which grow in the same conditions as Bananas and have more than enough beta carotene without any GM tricks. The problem is that both Bananas and Papayas need very fertile soil (or lots of fertilizer) and plenty of water to grow.

    The problem of Vitamin A dificiency may be real enough, but to really solve it you have to first look at the root of the problem. Why are people Vitamin A deficient? Were they always or is there something new happening? In Uganda for example I suspect that it's because people used to get their beta carotene from unprocessed red palm oil which they used to extract themselves and used for all their cooking, and now they are using processed cooking oils which are cheap enough that they just don't bother extracting their own oil anymore but which have all the beta carotene removed! So the problem was created by modern consumer society in the first place! The best solution here is just a bit of education, because the unprocessed red palm oil is probably still available and inexpensive and people have just gotten out the habit of using it. Just tell them to go back to frying their non-GM bananas in red palm oil instead of processed oil and they'll stop being Vitamin A deficient in no time.

    In general, people who eat traditional diets are rarely deficient in such important nutrients as Vitamin A unless they simply don't have enough to eat overall. But people are losing their traditional diets due to the relentless onslought of consumerism... for those populations the cheapest and most effective solution to Vitamin A deficiency is education and making sure traditional sources of beta carotine continue to be available. For those who are deficient because of extreme poverty the super bananas (or the golden rice, another frankenfood ultra-solution) solve nothing unless you give them away, in which case you can give away non-GM sources of beta carotene just as easily.

  • by js3 (319268) on Monday June 16, 2014 @11:58AM (#47246559)

    It's free. 30 years down the road no one can claim a patent on it. Just let food grow naturally, stop this super this super that crap.

  • by Tokolosh (1256448) on Monday June 16, 2014 @12:37PM (#47246931)

    against a man armed with a banana?

    Nearly 200 posts and nobody has asked the most important question!

  • by presidenteloco (659168) on Monday June 16, 2014 @12:51PM (#47247043)

    Probably most if not all current GMO food crops do not damage human health.

    However, in the abstract, you are engineering (almost arbitrarily modifying) organisms capable of spontaneous reproduction and proliferation, so the level of precautionary principle needed is commensurate with "would it be ok if this escaped into the wild and took over ecosystem niches from more naturally evolved or incrementally bred crops / organisms? Do we have an accurate model of what would happen in that case? Have we tested enough to verify that model? And every case of a different manipulation or in a different organism is different so requires repetition of extensive testing."

    The types of risks there run the gamut from destruction of wild varieties and species by competition from the GMO. Substantial alteration of ecosystem by shifting the balance of successful and unsuccessful organisms. Proliferation of and reliance on a GMO monoculture which is then subject to rapid destruction from a single pathogen. etc. etc. Ecological system effects in other words. Very hard to test for.

    Again, it will probably be all be fine, until one day when it won't. When something unanticipated will happen and, well, the genie is out of the bottle and doesn't fit back in.

    At a minimum, GMO food should be labelled as such, and let people decide for themselves and vote with their pocketbook.

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