GMO crops could save lives: Tackling vitamin A deficiency in Africa

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are organisms that, unlike people such as the Food Babe or those over at the Big Organic lobby would like you to think, are not harmful to humans. I forget to mention, every major scientific and health organisation has reviewed the evidence for the use of genetically-modified technology. They state that currently approved GMOs pose no risk to human health (you can find this information on the websites for the FDA, WHO, ICSU, etc), and new GMOs are reviewed on a case by case basis, which makes complete sense to ensure safety is retained.

I found this awesome info-graphic at the genetic literacy site which sums up the scientific consensus on GMOs with direct quotes from health and science organisation websites.GLP-Science-and-GMOs.png

Right, for anyone who is remotely sensical that should be enough for them to realise that people aren’t trying to make crops to harm people and purely make money; on with the article.

So this story actually goes back to 2014 (commonly in the media), and relates to the use of genetically modified bananas to increase vitamin A consumption in Uganda, thus hoping to tackle vitamin A deficiency. I was listening to the scientific and skeptical podcast ‘The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe’ the other day and the issue of anti-GM activists protesting this potential use of GMO crops for vitamin A deficiency came up. As a scientist, I am very much of the mind that to take a stance on an issue one should systematically review the evidence and come to a conclusion. If new evidence presents itself then the process is repeated, which may result in a different outcome, but in that case their stance should change as this is what the evidence supports. This makes sense and is what any sane person should do, but unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that (cue the point above regarding GMOs), and so I have decided to write an article on this issue as I believe it has the genuine ability to help people without forcing them to change (i.e. alter their diet in this case). As I stated, I was listening to The Skeptics’ Guide when I heard about this so credit for the idea to write about it goes to them. In addition, here is an article Steven Novella (of The Skeptics’ Guide) wrote about this recently as well to give credit.

What are GMOs (briefly)?

I assume if you have got this far you know what GMOs are, but we all love a little refresher now and then, so lets take a look at what a GMO actually is.

Genetically modified organisms are aptly named, as they are in fact an organism who’s genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques; that is, techniques that allow the specific modification of a targets genome. A narrower definition is that of a ‘transgenic organism’, one which contains a transgene (or transgenes). A transgene is a gene that has been transferred from one organism to another, either naturally or through engineering techniques, and so a transgenic organism in GMO terms is one that has been genetically altered with a gene that is from an unrelated organism.

This genetic alteration of organisms’ genetic material is a powerful tool that can be used to introduce advantageous characteristics into crops, such as resistance to environmental factors, better growth in particular soils, or in this case, biofortified crops.

What is the situation in Uganda (i.e. why have I even written about this)?

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a major public health problem in the developing world. It affects 190 million children under 5 years old, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia (WHO, 2009). National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) acting director Dr Andrew Kiggundu has said that 52% of children under the age of five in Uganda suffer from vitamin A deficiencies, and 40% of deaths in this age group result additionally from iron deficiency (banana.aatf-africa.org). Vitamin A deficiency leads to impaired vision, diminishes the ability to fight infections and decreases growth rate and bone development (Ekesa et al, 2015).

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Global prevalence of VAD (WHO, 2009.)

A particular species of banana, that is used for cooking, constitutes a major source of carbohydrates for Uganda, with an average person eating between 750 grams and a kilogram every day (banana.aatf-africa.org). This is where the GMO part comes in.

How do these GMO-bananas differ from conventionally farmed bananas?

We have identified that sub-saharan Africa is at risk of vitamin  A deficiency, and that a large proportion of their diet is dedicated to bananas. It would therefore make sense to tackle this problem by introducing provitamin A constituents into one of the peoples main food sources. Yes, there are other ways to counter this deficiency. I shall however counter those arguments later on, so bear with me if you are a GMO-hating organic madman (or woman for that matter), you can come at me with your tin-hat later.

As an aside, I actually love organic food. Although it has no proven health benefits over conventionally farmed food (again, evidence-based judgement), I feel that the sustainable aspect of organic farming is highly important to future conservational efforts. That is also another reason why GMOs could be beneficial, by reducing the excessive depletion of crops through engineering to produce a higher yield, in addition to a reduction in land being over-farmed for the same reason.

So, back to the bananas. The cultivar in question has been in development since 2005 (over at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT)), and has six times the current content of beta-carotene. What is beta-carotin I hear you ask? Well, it is a plant carotenoid that is a pro-vitamin A compound, that being, it is metabolised into vitamin A within the body. Over 80% of the vitamin A intake in low income countries is derived from plant sources in the form of provitamin A carotenoids (Van den Burg et al, 2000), and so this further feeds into why it is a good idea to boost the vitamin A in these crops (as this is how they are getting their vitamin A, just in insufficient quantities due to the natural crop composition). In addition to the beta-carotene fortification, there are attempts to modify the bananas to tackle iron deficiency, and resistance to harmful nematodes.

Surely there is a more effective way to manage this problem? What about supplements? Or make them change their diet?

Yes, supplements are great short-term way to tackle this problem, as has been happening for years, but it is not sustainable and does not have a significant effect; this is evident as East-African populations are still presenting with VAD despite these programs.

As the WHO puts it:

“…the effect of vitamin A supplementation capsules lasts only 4-6 months, they are only initial steps towards ensuring better overall nutrition and not long-term solutions.”

As for the diet issue, this is one method which could work, as the WHO identifies.  Once again though this does not completely discredit using GMOs, if anything these could be used in combination for maximum effect. Despite this, it could be met with resistance from the local populace and thus diet change may prove ineffective.

Again, why am I even writing this article (apart from to facilitate the spread of scientific literacy)? The anti-GMO activists, that’s why.

The anti-GMO activists are getting a little bit riled up about the fact that these GMO-bananas have been developed and are now to being used in a human trail involving healthy students at Iowa State University. Hence, this is one of the reasons I am writing this article, to counter this blatant attempt to undermine a genuine humanitarian attempt at GMO use. In addition, of course, to my unsatiable thirst for spreading scientific knowledge (why I am even writing this blog). The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) have actually written an open letter to Iowa State University and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (who started this project) complaining about the human feeding trials. They claim that “there is no consensus that GM crops are safe for human consumption”, which we have already covered at the start of this article. In addition, they highlight the point of supplementation, which we have also already covered.

One of the major concerns is regarding the actual study and the health of the students/design of the study. As Steven Novella points out in his article that I mentioned, these studies are carried out by a world expert on Vitamin A absorption and metabolism, Dr. Wendy White, and the AFSA makes small objections without recognising this is a preliminary study in healthy subjects. The subjects are paid volunteers, so no quarrel there, supervised by an expert in her field. Another point Dr. Novella highlights very rightly is the aspect that a common problem people have with GMOs is complaining that they are not studied (which isn’t true), and now people are complaining that they are being studied. Oh, the hypocrisy!

It must just be because people like Monsato want to create a monopoly on the crops out there, and patents, lots of juicy patents?

Alongside the arguments already presented, it is clear that none of the normal arguments regarding GMOs are relevant in this debate. There is no aim to gain patents or a monopoly on the market, why? – because this is a humanitarian project run by the Ugandan government, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Moreover, remember how we mentioned transgenes? This is normally a big issue, but in this case it is once again irrelevant. This GMO-banana does not use transgrenes, but genes from a wild banana species (not an unrelated organism). What about pesticides? Nope, not even relevant at all, this issue isn’t even mentioning pesticides.

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The conclusion

Overall, it is clear that despite a genuine effort to help other people some are determined to fight this progressive step forward. Why would they do this, if all the evidence points to it being beneficial? For the same reasons some believe the pharmaceutical industry is scurrying away a cure for cancer, or that vaccines cause autism but we use them anyway – vested interest. The organic market has exploded in recent years, and is now a multi-billion dollar industry; why would they want that threatened if one of their main opponents (GMOs) are proven to be healthy and beneficial?

The open letter from AFSA puts it perfectly, and I must say I didn’t see this insight but The Skeptics’ Guide podcast and article flagged this up (credit to them, plagiarism is wrong).

“We will not stand by idly as attempts are made to systematically genetically modify Africa’s staple foods and in the process gain a massive positive public relations coup by claiming to have conquered health problems at the unnecessary risk to Africans.”

What, “gain a massive positive public relations coup”,  damn we can’t having people thinking good of GMOs. “Unnecessary risk to Africans” – but that’s why they are currently being tested, and that’s what you were moaning about? It’s all over the place.

My recommendation

Review the evidence, review the science, come to an informed conclusion, and admire this amazing humanitarian effort scientists are involved in.

Peace out.

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