I find this vox.com post by Natahnael Johnson even more interesting than their very high average. It is a paean to genentically modified bananas originally published at Grist.
The Grist (and Vox) headline people tease “These vitamin-fortified bananas might get you thinking differently about GMOs”. Johnson should be glad it didn’t get me thinking differently as I have been a raving GMO enthusiast for 35 years.
The claim is that bananas genetically engineered to produce (more) beta carotene will reduce vitamin A deficiency in Uganda. Johnson devotes much of the post to arguing that the bananas will end up in people’s stomachs unlike the golden rice which was a flash not yet in any pans.
I am, of course, convinced. I am especially interested that the post was put up at Grist.
I really don’t have much to add beyond the link.
I guess the only overlap with economics is that the bananas will be public domain, because the research is financed by the Gates foundation not a profit seeking corporation. This is actually necessary for the product to exist, because bananas can be reproduced from shoots, so there aren’t and can’t be profitable banana seed companies.
Aside from the vitamin issue, there is an even more urgent reason for GMO bananas. Almost all of the commercial bananas today are a single cultivar, the Cavendish. As you point out, banana trees are not grown from seeds. They are grown from cloned shoots so that most the commercial banana trees are not just the same species but literally the same genetic identical clones throughout the world.
The Cavendish bananas are suffering from a fungus called Panama Disease which threatens the extinction of all the current banana plantations within 10 years. It is urgent that fungus resistant banana strains are engineered and it would be good if they could include the vitamin-A benefit at the same time.
My dad’s family grew bananas on the Florida Keys in the late 1800’s-early 1900’s. I never knew the names of the varieties, but there were more than the Cavendish. We always referred to the short, fat, sweet ones as “Cuban bananas”, but I’ve also heard them called “pineapple bananas” and ‘finger bananas.”
Thanks to the Hispanic influence here in NC, we can now get many Caribbean fruits of my childhood, including various banana varieties, including red ones. And plantains, of course, which is a cooking ‘banana’.
So, even if the Cavenish disappears, while it would be a disappointment, it is not the end of the banana world.
The article didn’t get me thinking differently about GMOs either, because I already thought that it is not impossible that something good could be produced with genetic engineering, just as I believed that it is not impossible that something good could be done with Gates Foundation money. Of course, whether either of these is true in this case remains to be seen. Even if so, that wouldn’t tell us whether GMOs are a good thing in general.
The issue with the Cavendish is that it is the premier commercial banana grown today, so that for a while bananas will be a luxury product until a replacement is found. This primarily will impact North America and Europe as different cultivars (and more varied ones) are used in SE Asia where the plants originated.
I should clarify that the Cavendish is the sweet banana that in the U.S. is used mainly as a snack or dessert.
The vitamin-A banana is a more starchy variety that is more commonly called plantain that is used for cooking and is a dietary staple.
They are two different genetic problems.