There are a lot of different types of bananas in the world. BananaLink, a UK organization that promotes fair and sustainable banana and pineapple trading, estimates that there are around 1,000 varieties throughout the world. The one everyone in the U.S. knows best is the Cavendish, which is the varietal grown for export.

In Summer 2014, the Guardian reports that scientists from the Queensland University of Technology had successfully engineered bananas with increased levels of beta-carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A.

Smithsonian Magazine reports that this research was funded by millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with the goal of preventing thousands of Ugandan children (and children from surrounding areas) from going blind or dying from vitamin A deficiency.

Professor James Dale, who led the project for QUT, told the Guardian in June 2014:

“The highland or East African cooking banana, which is chopped and steamed, is a staple food of many East African nations, but it has low levels of micronutrients, particularly pro-vitamin A and iron. We’re aiming to increase the level of pro-vitamin A to a minimum level of 20 micrograms per gram dry weight.”

These GM bananas, which have orange flesh due to the extra beta-carotene, were then scheduled to be tested by human subjects at Iowa State University.

“Somewhere in Iowa, volunteers are earning $900 apiece by providing blood samples after eating bits of a banana kissed with a curious tinge of orange,” NPR’s Dan Charles reported back in July.

But since that time, several problems have arisen. A major one came from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which gathered the support of around 120 organizations around the world to express extreme concern about this GM banana. You can read the full open letter here.

AFSA Policy Advocate and proud Ugandan Bridget Mugambe told Permaculture Magazine,

“Just because the GM banana has been developed in Australia and is being tested in the US, does not make it super! Ugandans know what is super because we have been eating homegrown GM-free bananas for centuries. This GM Banana is an insult to our food, to our culture, to us a nation, and we strongly condemn it.”

hell no

One concern expressed in the open letter was the lack of animal trials before these human trials at Iowa University were scheduled to take place. The Guardian reported in June 2014 that trials of these bananas on Mongolian gerbils had been successful, but no other animal trials have taken place.

A more immediate practical problem is delaying the study right now—not an ideological one. Dale told the Des Moines Register in an email,

“Importantly, the nutrition study will go forward, but not until all of us are satisfied that the banana material meets quality standards. As you might imagine, given how you see bananas ripen in your own home, it has been a challenge shipping bananas from Australia to the US and having them arrive in good condition.”

That’s definitely understandable, especially considering how difficult it can be to ship a single package across the city sometimes. It remains to be seen whether these GM bananas will see the light of day outside of laboratory testing, and the road doesn’t appear to be getting any shorter.

[via Smithsonian Magazine, the Des Moines Register, the Guardian]