An Open Letter to QUT's Dr James Dale, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Dear Dr Dale, QUT, Gates Foundation and CBD Delegates,
The Gates Foundation has invested 15 million dollars in Dr James Dale's GMO so-called 'super-bananas' developed at QUT. The project is being touted as philanthropy with a humanitarian purpose in combating micronutrient deficiency. The GMO bananas, grown in Australia, are currently in Iowa in the US undergoing what Scientific American calls Market Trials – that is, trials that have been designed for marketing purposes, rather than thorough clinical trials. While the Market Trials are gaining considerable media attention for the project, it is not at all clear that the GMO banana project is truly a charitable exercise. It is however a clear case of biopiracy.
Fe'i bananas (Musa troglodytarum L.) are a traditional food across the Asia-Pacific, found in an area ranging from Maluku in Indonesai to Tahiti and Hawaii in the Pacific. In 1788, Daniel Solander, accompanying botanist Joseph Banks and James Cook on the voyage of the Endeavour, noted several varieties of Fe'i bananas used in Tahiti. Artist Paul Gauguin's paintings Le Repas (The Meal), La Orana Maria (The Virgin Mary) and Tahitian Landscape, painted in 1891, depict these red-orange bananas. In Indonesia they are known as pisang tongkat langit (sky cane bananas) because of the distinctive upright fruiting stem.
Until recently local consumption of Fe'i bananas across the region had been largely displaced by imported food cultures. In the early 2000's US researcher Lois Englberger, living in Micronesia, after searching for sources of vitamin A in the traditional diet in Micronesia, found that Micronesian 'Karat' bananas – so called because of their orange flesh and high beta-carotene content – had been traditionally used as an infant weaning food. She presented her work on high beta-carotene local bananas at a symposium in Penang in 2004. Until then, few scientists were aware that there were orange fleshed bananas high in beta-carotene or that bananas could be used for addressing vitamin A deficiency. At the time, the existence of high beta-carotene local bananas drew much global media attention.
Englberger continued working with local communities and governments in the pacific to reintroduce the use of these highly nutritious local bananas as a means of promoting a healthy diet for local islanders until her death in 2011. Unlike Dr Dale and the Gates Foundation, she did not require a patent or GMOs. Based on Englberger's work, the Federated States of Micronesia have an ongoing program to bring back and encourage the cultivation and consumption of these local banana varieties. Englberger's work with the Island Food Community of Pohnpei in FSM has seen the use of these varieties widely adopted in a campaign called 'Let's Go Local!' The program has been so successful that the Karat banana has been adopted as the state emblem of Pohnpei and stamps have been issued featuring the Karat banana.
Englberger's work included nutritional surveying of pacific banana cultivars in Australia held in collection by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries collected 25 years earlier from Papua New Guinea, including the Asupina variety from which Dr Dale has taken the banana gene for beta-carotene. The Asupina is not a wild variety as Dr Dale has claimed – it is a domesticated cultivar from PNG. It is also not unpleasant to eat as Dr Dale has also claimed. As Englberger was at pains to point out, there are Fe'i banana varieties that are delicious when eaten raw, and others when baked or boiled.
(Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Landscape, 1891)
Dr Dale's globe trotting GMO bananas are a globe trotting case of biopiracy. Their gene for beta-carotene comes from the PNG Asupina variety. The traditional knowledge they have used comes from Micronesia and Englberger's work. The Q-DPI collection from which Jeff Daniels sourced the Asupina variety should have been a collection held in public trust. Moreover, their gene for disease resistance comes from Maluku in Indonesia. Their GMO 'super banana' project on which Dr Dale holds multiple patents for 'banana transformation' now proposes to sell these purloined treasures back to the world as their patented product from which they can derive royalties and to which they can determine access is being offered up as an act of charity. Rather this is an act of biopiracy. It is an act of biocolonialism.
Paul Gauguin, Le Repas (The Meal), 1891
Dr Dale has given lectures in Indonesia supported by the Australian Embassy in Jakarta where he has claimed bananas are going extinct, selectively ignoring the many hundreds of biodiverse varieties of banana that are the collective living cultural heritage of Africans, Asians and Pacific peoples, the very diversity on which he has have based his GMO bananas, while his real purposes appear to be bioprospecting of local banana varieties. Gates Foundation has accrued its wealth from Microsoft's aggressive pursuit of patent infringement and piracy of their software and technology, however, they do not hesitate to participate in the biopiracy of the banana biodiversity and traditional knowledge that is the cultural and biological heritage of generations of local communities and farmers in PNG and Micronesia.
Bananas are widely used traditionally as an infant weaning food. As noted, the 'Karat' banana is Pohnpei is used for this purpose. In Indonesia, the first meal for babies is banana. Slow Food Yogyakarta have a banana biodiversity project and several varieties have been nominated for the Slow Food Ark of Taste – including varieties from the Sultan of Yogyakarta's kraton gardens – perhaps the proponents of GMO bananas would like to get their hands on the Sultan of Yogyakarta's banana genes? A local school in Lampug, Sumatra has educational gardens which includes local banana biodiversity – perhaps they would like to steal from the mouths of those children? Babies and infants are particularly sensitive to the foods they consume hence the issue of GMOs in baby food is a contentious one in the West – why should Africans and Asians or any peoples be made to forcefeed their children with their patented GMOs?
We need more committed researchers like Lois Englberger working in tandem and partnership with local communities for real solutions to hunger and malnutrition. We do not need biopirates and biocolonialists like Dr Dale and Gates Foundation falsely claiming invention and monopoly rights over these local community controlled resources and biodiverse solutions for hunger and nutrition.
Dr Dale himself admits that the GMO bananas are a door-opener designed to facilitate the uptake of many more GMO crops in Africa and globally. The GMO 'super-bananas' are an expensive distraction away from real solutions for vitamin A deficiency. We do not need to waste time and millions on GMOs when we have viable existing solutions that are based on biodiversity and available right now, not in 2020. The problem of expensive patented medicinces hindering access to affordable healthcare in poorer nations is serious. Packaging the fight against malnutrition in the form of a patented GMO 'super-banana' on which millions of dollars have been wasted owned by a few rich white men only threatens to exacerbate this problem. Moreover, malnutrition is a complex problem that cannot be solved by monocultural solutions whether of the mind or of the field, not by 'Golden Rice' nor the cartoon solution of GMO 'super-bananas'.
Paul Gauguin, La Orana Maria (The Virgin Mary), 1891
Mantasa's work with local communities has shown that there are many diverse sources of vitamin A to be found in local biodiversity. In Indonesia these include purslane Portulaca oleracea, 43 gm of which provides 568 IU of vitamin A, which is 11% of daily required intake of vitamin A as well as providing 15% of daily vitamin C and 1% of daily folate requirement. The leaves of Moringa Moringa oleifera provide 7564 IU of vitamin A which is 252% of daily vitamin A requirement, per 100 grams of fresh leaves. In fact, Tanzania, Uganda's neighbour, has a program promoting the use of Moringa leaf in local diets to eliminate vitamin A deficiency. Ugandans also grow sweet potato, a staple food which is rich in vitamin A. The GMO banana project aims at 20 IU of vitamin A per gram of banana, a quite high amount, while Ugandans consume banana as a staple food. Excessive amounts of vitamin A can also be damaging to health as vitamin A is fat soluble and stored in the liver, excessive amounts can result in health problems such as liver damage.
Dr Dale and Gates Foundation must surely be aware that previous human feeding trials of so-called 'Golden Rice' in the US and in China have been plagued with violations of research ethics and are currently mired in international scandal. In Boston, Tufts University's Institutional Review Board has suspended the lead Chinese researcher from the Tufts human trials of 'Golden Rice' from her permission to conduct human subject researcher after admitting there were serious irregularities and violations of ethics in the human feeding trials of 'Golden Rice' carried out in Hunan. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which published the Tufts study is reportedly retracting the article due to these violations of ethics. Nevertheless the Tufts study is positively referred to in the Australian government's OGTR risk assessment for the GMO 'super-bananas'.
Taking resources away from communities can only be done violently. The GMO banana project has begun violently, with the unacknowledged theft of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage of local communities and farmers in PNG and Micronesia, whose traditional knowledge and biological heritage has now been enclosed in patents for 'banana transformation'. It is continuing violently now with the Market Trials on unsuspecting human subjects in Iowa, female students, who are being paid 900 dollars to turn themselves into human guinea pigs, or rather, Mongolian gerbils, while no safety tests for human consumption of the GMO bananas have been done.
It is an inauspicious beginning and certainly bananas have a bloody history. A 2011 article in the New Yorker on the GMO bananas, in which the vitamin A bananas barely rate a mention, suggests that the GMO banana project's larger ambition is to enter the international banana trade, setting itself up as the United Fruit Co. of the 21st Century. Perhaps that is why the GMO banana project is focused on India and Uganda – the first and second biggest producers of bananas (See: 'We Have No Bananas' in The New Yorker by Mike Peed, January 10, 2011). The New Yorker article suggests the real intended market for the GMO banana is the rich western consumer for whom bananas remain one of the most popular fruits.
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932
Tellingly, The New Yorker article notes that United Fruit, from which we get the common phrase 'banana republic' was kept in force by means of coups, massacres, dictatorships, and, in the case of Guatemala, was a contributing factor in at least one genocide in Latin America. United Fruit was known as El Pulpo (The Octopus), for its machinations and was a key player behind the political instability and violent revolutionary foment ignited in Latin America during much of the 20th Century. The last public act of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was to protest the US intervention in Guatemala on behalf of United Fruit. Frida's husband Diego Rivera depicted the US-sponsored coup in Guatemala in his 1954 mural 'Glorious Victory'.
Violently enforced monopolies in trade are something that Latin American, African, Asian and Pacific peoples know well. In Indonesia, the rule of the V.O.C. (Dutch East India Company) was established with the 1621 massacre of the Bandanese islanders in Maluku in order to gain monopoly control over the world's source of nutmeg. Every Indonesian school-child knows the book Max Havelaar, written by Edouard Dowes Dekker, a Dutchman who blew the whistle on the inquities of the Dutch colonial cultuurstelsel, or forced cultivation system, imposed on Indonesia's peasants, who were required to grow cash crops for export and turn these over to the colonial authorities – what Indonesians refer to as tanam paksa (enforcement planting). Indonesia's most famous author Pramoedya Ananta Toer has called Max Havelaar, 'the book that “killed” colonialism”. The GMO 'super-banana' project's recipe for seed and life patent monopolies is hardly different from the Dutch colonial forced 'cultivation system' that Indonesian peoples know so well. It is colonialism re-invented as intellectual property. GMOs are no miracle solution for hunger and malnutrition. GMO's are a recipe for 'super-weeds' not 'super-bananas'.
Diego Rivera, Glorious Victory, 1954
In 100 Years of Solitude, the late Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez provides a fictionalised version of the December 6 1928 Columbian banana massacre in which Marquez's hero survives the massacre and returns to Macondo, only to find that all memory of the massacre is being systematically erased. However, today we say that we do not forget. We say there must be no GMO banana republic. Thus Mantasa is launching today, on October 2, 2014, Gandhi Jayanti, the anniversary of Gandhi's birthday, and UN International Day of Non-Violence, a pledge of non-cooperation with the GMO banana project, and we invite groups, organisations and individuals to join us in a pledge of creative non-violent resistance, in partnership with biodiversity, cultural diversity, diversity in traditional knowledge and our mother earth's diverse richness in species. We invite people everywhere to join with us in pledging non-violent non-cooperation with the GMO 'super-bananas' and other mad acts of biopiracy and biocolonialism as pseudo-solutions for hunger and malnutrition.
We say, 'No GMO Banana Republic. Stop Banana Biopiracy!'
Mantasa, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, 2 October 2014
When the trumped sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.
It rebaptized these countries
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners
it established a comic opera:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tachos flies
Carias flies, Martinez flies,
Ubico flies, flies sticky with
submissive blood and marmalade,
drunken flies that buzz over
the tombs of the people,
circus flies, wise flies
expert at tyranny.
With the bloodthirsty flies
came the Fruit company,
amassed coffee and fruit
in ships which put to sea like
overloaded trays with the treasures
from our sunken lands.
Meanwhile the Indians fall
into the sugared depths of the
harbors and are buried in the
a corpse rolls, a thing without
name, a discarded number
a bunch of rotten fruit
thrown on the garbage heap.
-Pablo Neruda, La United Fruit Co.
http://www.musalit.org/seeMore.php?id=8855 Englberger, L., Darnton-Hill, I., Coyne, T., Fitzgerald, M.H. and Marks, G.C. 2003. Carotenoid-rich bananas: A potential food source for alleviating vitamin A deficiency. Food and Nutrition Bulletin 24(4):303-318.
“We Have No Bananas' by Mike Peed, January 10, 2011http://www.newyorker.com/.../2011/01/10/we-have-no-bananas