Australia's First Genetically Modified Banana Sent for Approval


Scientists have submitted Australia's first genetically modified Cavendish banana to regulators for approval, saying it has been engineered to withstand a TR4 fungus.

The banana, known as QCAV-4, has been genetically modified to resist the fungus of the Panama disease Tropical Race 4 (TR4). 

If approved, the banana would become Australia's first G.M. fruit to be approved for cultivation and consumption and the first G.M. banana to be approved worldwide.

Prof James Dale of the Queensland University of Technology, who led QCAV-4's development, said the G.M. variety offered a safety net for growers if TR4 wiped out the Australian industry.

If approved, the research team plans to wait to release the banana for commercial production or consumption.

Dale estimates that there are between 300 and 1,000 varieties of banana globally, but the Cavendish banana accounts for about half of commercial growing worldwide. "It has some disease resistance, it's high yielding, it tastes pretty good, and it travels well," Dale said.

In the 1990s, a fungus that affects Cavendish bananas, Panama TR4, was discovered in Southeast Asia. It has since spread to China, India and significant banana-growing countries.

"Eighty-five per cent of the world's export bananas come from south and central America, and the other 15% come from the Philippines," Dale said. "The Philippines is already dramatically affected by TR4.

"Once it got to Colombia, and then Peru and now Venezuela, that's when the big exporters suddenly realized that this is really very serious."

In Australia, Panama TR4 was first discovered in the Northern Territory, where it was gradually wiping out the industry, said Leon Collins, chair of the Australian Banana Growers' Council.

"On the east coast, we only have it in the Tully River valley now. We've confined it to that so far because of good biosecurity, and the big effort that the growers have made." 

Collins described the genetically modified QCAV-4 as "another string in the bow … that we can use. One day [we] may not have an industry here growing with normal bananas."

QCAV-4, the result of 20 years of work, was developed by taking a resistance gene from a wild banana immune to TR4 and inserting it into the Cavendish.

Using six transgenic banana varieties, Dale and his colleagues began field trials southeast of Darwin in 2012, with good results.

"We did a much, much bigger field trial that we planted in 2018, and that's still going," Dale said. One variety, now called QCAV-4, showed a 2% infection rate after four years, compared with 95% and 75% infection rates in two lots of regular Cavendish plants.

"If the disease gets going in Australia like it has in the Philippines … we've got this banana in the back pocket and we'll be able to pull it out."  A spokesperson for the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator said: "This is a significant step, but it is the first in a series of steps. "The gene technology regulator will carefully examine any risks to people and the environment posed by the commercial cultivation of the G.M. banana plants.

"The regulator will only issue a licence authorizing the cultivation of the G.M. banana if satisfied that any risks can be effectively managed."

The spokesperson said two rounds of stakeholder consultation would be needed, with public consultation expected to occur in August.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand is assessing the banana's suitability for commercial sale and consumption. Its chief Executive, Dr Sandra Cuthbert, said: "Consumers can have trust and confidence in FSANZ's independent scientific assessment. We develop world-leading standards, and our experts have a strong track record of assessing the safety of novel foods.

"We will invite public submissions on any proposed changes to the Australia New Zealand food standards code resulting from our assessment of this application."