Australia and New Zealand: GMO bananas for Panama disease control

Gerhard Uys

February 22, 2024

First genetically modified banana approved for growth in Australia and possible sale in NZ.

The GM banana plants contain an introduced gene from wild banana Musa acuminata subspecies malaccensis

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Food Standards Australia New Zealand has approved a genetically modified banana for sale as food in Australia and New Zealand. 

The announcement comes as the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care said a licence was granted to allow the Australian Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to commercially cultivate GM banana plants modified for resistance to the fungal disease Fusarium wilt, also known as Panama disease.

In Australia, Panama disease affects a number of banana plantations in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

The Panama disease fungus persists in soil for decades and there are no effective control measures, the department said. 

“The licence allows GM banana plants [to be] grown in all banana growing areas in Australia, subject to restrictions in some states and territories for marketing reasons,” the department said.

The QUT does not intend the GM banana plants to replace the current Cavendish banana cultivars growing in Australia, but wanted to create a safety net to the Australian banana industry should it be heavily impacted by Panama disease.

“The Regulator has not imposed any specific measures to manage risk, as the risk assessment concluded that this release of GM banana plants poses negligible risk to the health and safety of people or the environment,” the department said.

The GM banana plants and their products may enter general commerce, including use in human food and animal feed, the department said.

The GM banana plants contain an introduced gene from wild banana Musa acuminata subspecies  malaccensis.  

In NZ, the Ministry for Primary Industries reported that over the past five years NZ imported 99.8 tonnes of bananas from Australia, with an import value of  $550,422, the majority dried bananas.

A spokesperson for Woolworths NZ said it does not import bananas from Australia, and that the several thousand tonnes of bananas it does import are under certifications that prohibited GMOs.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) did not respond to specific questions but pointed to its website that had information on the approval.

“Australian and New Zealand food ministers [were notified] of the decision on 16 February 2024. Food ministers have 60 days to consider the approval. If they do not request a review, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code will be amended to permit the sale and use of food derived from the banana,” the website says.

“QUT has indicated there are no immediate plans to commercialise the GM banana in Australia as Panama disease is currently contained and effectively managed in the domestic industry.

“FSANZ safety assessment found food derived from banana line QCAV-4 is as safe and nutritious as comparable conventional banana already in the Australian and New Zealand food supply.” 

The GM bananas and any derived food products will be subject to mandatory GM labelling. 

However, “food intended for immediate consumption that is prepared and sold from food premises and vending vehicles (for example restaurants, takeaway food outlets and caterers) is exempt from GM food labelling requirements. In these cases the consumer can seek information about the food from the food business,” the FSANZ  website says.