19 January 2003

GM bid to save 'infertile' bananas

By Severin Carrell and Geoffrey Lean

GM bananas are being grown in East Anglia in a government-funded bid to save the fruit from extinction.

The banana trees – developed in test tubes in Norfolk and now several feet tall – are part of a multimillion-pound project by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, to rescue the fruit from pests and diseases sweeping through the world's plantations.

They represent an apparently beneficial application of GM technology, though environmentalists warn they may yet pose health dangers.

Scientists warned last week that the banana could die out within 10 years, as it is "genetically decrepit", making it extremely vulnerable to attack from disease. Despite its priapic shape, the fruit is sterile: every banana is grown from a cutting descended directly from mutant plants found by Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

The death of the banana would not just deprive Britons of their most popular fruit – we unzip 20 million of them every day – but bring much of the world close to starvation. More than half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend upon them as a staple food.

No GM bananas have yet been grown in the field, but the Department for International Development (DfID) has produced two varieties.

Dr Dave Harris, deputy manager of DfID's plant sciences programme, said that growing GM bananas was "as safe as safe gets" because the fruit's sterility would prevent it spreading its genes.

But Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth said that the fruit could still pose health risks. "Growing it without first assessing these dangers would be bananas."