An International Ethics Controversy Is Brewing Over a University GE Banana Study Funded by the Gates Foundation
A recent controversy about an upcoming genetically engineered (GE) banana study at Iowa State University (ISU) highlights public universities’ reluctance to engage with students in critical dialogue. Several graduate students, over the course of the last year, have raised critical questions about the claims made by ISU administrators and others that the GE banana study will save lives. The research will test the bioavailability of beta carotene in bananas genetically engineered to contain more of the Vitamin A precursor. The study recruited 12 female ISU students (ages 18-40) to eat GE bananas in return for $900. This study is one of the first human feeding trials of GE products and the first feeding trial of the GE banana.
The students also recently delivered 57,309 petition signatures to ISU in conjunction with a parallel delivery to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle by AGRA Watch and the Community Alliance for Global Justice. Critics of the initial questions and subsequent petition delivery use an increasingly common argument that critical questions about GE technology are somehow “anti-science.” Several GE proponents also accused students and activists involved in the delivery of using their white privilege to keep Africans hungry and malnourished.
Yes, students are privileged to ask these questions. The opportunity to engage in a scientific dialogue is a powerful privilege. This privilege compels us to ask difficult questions about the ethical dimensions of this GE banana research process, as well as its impacts and other viable alternatives.
Last year, the concerned ISU graduate students drafted scientific questions investigating how the study would be conducted and potential effects the GE bananas could have on Ugandan food systems. Their questions are not about whether the use of biotechnology is morally right or wrong, or if the researchers are good or bad people. At their heart, these questions are about social, economic and environmental impacts that this kind of research will have upon real people in real places. Hunger and malnutrition are not only biological challenges, they are social problems rooted in inequality.
The questions boil down to four main queries: (1) How will GE bananas impact nutrition and hunger in Uganda, or how will ISU and/or the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation address this question? (2) How was the technology determined to be a culturally appropriate intervention? (3) Who will own or control this technology upon its development? and (4) How should public universities be involved in GE biofortification and testing?
These questions highlight the need for a public dialogue on our campuses about the role of power in the scientific process. Claims made by ISU officials that this research will save lives are premature and a smokescreen to deflect students’ questions. These claims are made without any grounding in research or recognition of the power differential between their privileged positions as tenured faculty, deans, or department chairs and the would-be recipients of their GE hunger “solutions.” The claims ignore the ways in which the incessant battle to convince communities across the world to accept GE technology as a one-size-fits-all solution to complex social problems is itself a privileged perspective. Such far-reaching claims are not only unscientific but may lead to dangerous assumptions. These claims have also falsely implied that students, in asking their questions, attempted to directly malign the study’s primary researcher. Aligning the ISU students’ critical questions with attacks on the researcher is a sabotage of the scientific process itself.
GE proponents’ over-simplified approach poses risks to us all. Genetic engineering, in some cases, may be an appropriate technology that helps to solve agricultural and human health problems. Yet, for this approach to be scientific, it must incorporate – and take part in dialogue about – the social, economic, and environmental consequences associated with this technology.
No scientific study is free from the social, political, and cultural context in which it is conducted. We must be able to have meaningful critiques, pulling from multiple scientific disciplines, that challenge GE technology, including its potential uses, as well as interrogating who controls, owns, and benefits from it.
Science is a negotiation – an iterative process rooted in asking questions, in testing hypotheses and counter-hypotheses. Thus it is crucial that scientists and students of science – regardless of status, expertise, or background – be able to ask critical questions regarding each other’s work without fear of vitriolic retribution or retaliation.
We need a long view that takes into account social inequality and includes space for critical dialogue. No single crop, GE or otherwise, will solve the fundamental problems of hunger and malnutrition. There is a great deal of evidence that a more diversified agriculture – a system that places women’s empowerment and food sovereignty at its center – is likely to be more successful in the long term in achieving these ends. Many in agriculture and food systems scientists acknowledge that we need more research and development in alternative agricultural solutions.
To raise questions about the safety, utility, as well as the social and ecological consequences of GE is scientifically valid, and not akin to wanting people to go hungry or become malnourished. While administrators at public universities, philanthropic organizations, and private corporations talk about “saving lives,” many others want to talk about rebuilding their lives on their own terms, through agroecological methods and food sovereignty. As such, we should be investing in these endeavors just as we invest in GE technology.
It is essential that there is a space at public universities, with large philanthropic organizations, and in broader society where students, academics, and activists can ask difficult questions in the name of a more sustainable and equitable food system without being labeled as unscientific or accused of misusing their privilege.