World first: disease resistant GM banana approved for consumption

Queensland researchers have just received news over 20 years in the making – their genetically modified banana species called QCAV-4 has been approved by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).

Now, only one small step remains before the banana can be legally grown and sold in Australia. 

“This is a major step for QCAV-4 and comes after many years of development,” QUT’s Professor James Dale said.

“We welcome this decision as it’s a very important step towards building a safety net for the world’s Cavendish bananas from TR4 which has impacted many parts of the world already.”

This makes it the first whole genetically modified fruit assessed and approved by FSANZ and the first GM banana approved in the world.

QCAV-4 is genetically modified to be resistant to Panama Disease tropical race 4 (TR4) which has decimated banana markets around the world.

“TR4 is caused by a soil-borne fungus that stays in the ground for more than 50 years, wiping out banana crops and destroying farms for generations,” said Dale.

“It is a huge problem. It has devastated Cavendish plantations in many parts of the world and could cripple the Cavendish banana export industry worldwide.”

News image james
Professor James Dale. Credit: QUT

The banana is a normal Cavendish banana with a single changed gene called RGA2. This gene is from a wild, south-east Asian banana called Musa acuminata ssp malaccensis.

Despite plenty of interesting genetically modified fruits, vegetables and even plants being released in America, Australia has only ever grown cotton, canola, and safflower.

“We don’t have pink pineapples, non-browning apples and those sorts of things, partly because the companies who’ve got those look at Australia as being a difficult market,” Professor Christopher Preston, a researcher in weed management and GM crops at the University of Adelaide told Cosmos back in 2022.

But it makes sense that a genetically modified food, which will protect Queensland’s important banana agricultural industry, is the first to get approval.

“About 95 per cent of Australia’s bananas are grown in Queensland, and Cavendish banana accounts for 97 per cent of production,” Professor Dale said.

“Apart from providing a genuine protection against Panama Disease TR4 for the world’s export industry, QCAV-4 is a safety net for Australia’s $1.3 billion industry, which includes protected employment for 18,000 Queenslanders involved in banana production.”

Currently, the researchers have no plans to commercialise the GM banana in Australia, but instead it’s to be used as a safety net if T4R hits Queensland.

For the next steps for QCAV-4, Food Standards Australia New Zealand has notified the Food Ministers’ Meeting that it has been approved. The meeting has 60 days to request a review, or the banana will be allowed to be sold.

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