20 years in the making: Australian food safety body approves GM banana resistant to deadly disease

20 years in the making: Australian food safety body approves GM banana resistant to deadly disease

QUT Distinguished Professor James Dale at the QUT trial site in the Northern Territory.

The fight to save the world's most popular sweet fruit from a devastating fungal disease has taken on a new dimension today, after food safety authorities from Australia and New Zealand approved the Panama Disease tropical race 4 (TR4) resistant banana variety QCAV-4 as safe for human consumption.

The first strain of Panama Disease completely upended the global banana industry in the 20th century as the previously widespread Gros Michel variety proved susceptible and was eventually phased out in favour of today's most common Cavendish banana.

However, the TR4 strain of Panama Disease can be a death knell for Cavendish plants and has led to hundreds of thousands of hectares being wiped out around the world.

It effectively destroyed the Northern Territory's banana industry in the late 1990's, and upon its first detection in 2015 in Far North Queensland - Australia's main growing region - there were strict measures put in place to contain the spread. 

A range of breeding programs worldwide have sought to develop bananas that are both resistant to TR4 and are also fit for the palates of consumers who are so accustomed to a very specific kind of banana. One example that is visible to Australian consumers is leading fresh produce company Perfection Fresh, which has rolled out its own resistant non-GM alternatives Little Gem and Havana, which are more similar to Lady Finger than Cavendish.

Cavendish currently makes up around 97 per cent of Australia's production, while the more niche and harder-to-transport Lady Finger is also more susceptible to the earlier strains of Panama Disease which can remain in the soil for decades.

QUT Distinguished Professor James Dale and his team have spent more than 20 years attempting to develop and grow genetically modified Cavendish bananas in pursuit of TR4 resistance, and in 2021 achieved their breakthrough.

Now the Australian Government has granted QUT a licence to commercialise the variety, representing the first time any government has ever done so for a genetically modified banana, and the first ever GM fruit approved for growing in Australia. 

Today Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) also notified the Food Ministers’ Meeting (FMM) that it has approved QCAV-4 as suitable for human consumption. The FMM, made up of ministers from Australian state and territory governments and the Australian and New Zealand governments, has 60 days to either ratify FSANZ’s decision or request a review.

“This is a major step for QCAV-4 and comes after many years of development,” says Professor Dale.

“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.”

QCAV-4 bananas, developed in partnership with government and industry, have been grown in field trials in the Northern Territory for more than seven years and have proven to be highly resistant to Panama Disease TR4.

QCAV-4 is a Cavendish Grand Nain banana that has been bioengineered with a single banana resistance gene, RGA2, from the wild south-east Asian banana, Musa acuminata ssp malaccensis. Cavendish bananas already contain the RGA2 gene, but it is dormant.

There are no plans to grow or sell QCAV-4 bananas to consumers in Australia at this time. Under FSANZ guidelines, GM foods must be labelled. 

"The devastating Panama Disease 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,” Professor Dale said.

"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.”

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