Iowa Goes Bananas for GMOs

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Food and Water Watch Blog

Iowa Goes Bananas for GMOs

Rows of corn grow on a farm in Atkins, Iowa. (Photo: Firskey/ cc/ Flickr)

Iowa happens to have planted more genetically engineered corn and soybeans than any other state this year. In part because of this agricultural trend, Iowa’s land-grant university, Iowa State University, can’t help but remain loyal to the industry that sustains much of its agricultural research funding. If you’ve read Food & Water Watch’s “Public Research, Private Gain”, then it’s probably not a total surprise to you that there’s a very close tie between Iowa State University and the genetically engineered seed business. Iowa State University has its own Monsanto Student Services Wing; in recent years its $30 million plant sciences institute has been directed by representatives of Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta; and between 2006 and 2010, the university’s agronomy department took $19.5 million in research grants from private-sector donors (including the Iowa Soybean Association, Dow and Monsanto), representing close to half of its grant funding.

As far as extracurricular relationships, one Iowa State University representative has been parroting industry talking points in an effort to discredit the growing GMO labeling movement. Ruth MacDonald, a food science professor, was quoted in a Des Moines Register in a recent article, along with the Iowa Farm Bureau, discussing the supposed time-tested track record of all GMOs and the complications and costs that would come with mandatory GMO labeling. The article went on to describe the results from the Iowa Farm Bureau Food & Farm Index survey, which asked consumers about various labels, including GMO labels. The survey questions displayed in the article were convoluted, touted the proclaimed benefits of GMO foods and were clearly crafted to garner the desired results for the Farm Bureau: that consumers don’t want GMO labeling.

Iowa State’s symbiotic relationship with the biotech industry might be why it has decided to take on the first-ever human feeding trials of a banana, genetically engineered to have elevated levels of vitamin A. The ultimate goal of the project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be to grow these bananas in Uganda by 2020 to fight Vitamin A deficiency, much like the notorious Golden Rice project. NPR recently reported that Iowa State University’s food science department will host the feeding trial, and will pay volunteers $900 each to eat the vitamin-A-enriched, orange hued bananas. 

Much like the Golden Rice feeding trials, the results will be inconsequential because measuring Vitamin A expression in healthy, adult volunteers will not adequately reveal whether these bananas will raise vitamin levels in the target population: Ugandan children. And, 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 who have to be persuaded to eat orange-tinted bananas.” Once again, development agencies, foundations, and universities are investing in uncertain technological solutions to a problem that has a more practical solution: providing low-income, rural families with the capacity to grow crops that provide balanced nutrition.

Despite what Iowa State University and the Iowa Farm Bureau might think about the need for GMO labels, one thing is for sure: consumers want the right to know what’s in their food and will continue to fight for mandatory GMO labeling.

Genna Reed

Genna Reed is a researcher with Food & Water Watch primarily focused on new technology issues within the food system.

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