AUSTRALIA – Australia’s battle against Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4), commonly known as Panama disease, in Cavendish bananas has reached a pivotal milestone with the recent approval of the world’s first commercially cultivated genetically modified (GM) banana.

The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) granted license DIR 199 to Queensland University of Technology (QUT) for the cultivation of QCAV-4, a GM Cavendish banana designed to resist the devastating fungal disease.

In a landmark decision, OGTR’s approval follows rigorous assessments of QCAV-4’s safety and its potential contribution to mitigating the significant threat posed by Panama disease to the global banana industry.

The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) concurrently confirmed on February 16, 2024, that QCAV-4 is deemed suitable for human consumption, thereby paving the way for its sale as food in both Australia and New Zealand.

Professor James Smith, lead researcher at QUT, expressed the significance of this approval, stating, “QCAV-4 represents a breakthrough in banana cultivation. It not only offers hope for the Australian banana industry but also provides a potential solution on a global scale to combat the devastating impact of Panama disease on Cavendish bananas.”

The QCAV-4 banana, a bioengineered Cavendish Grand Nain variant, incorporates a single resistance gene, RGA2, sourced from the wild banana species Musa acuminata ssp malaccensis found in southeast Asia.

This genetic modification equips the banana with heightened resilience against the Panama disease TR4, which has already wreaked havoc in Asia and is gaining ground in South America.

Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory and North Queensland, has already experienced the encroachment of Panama disease TR4, contributing to the urgency in developing and approving resistant varieties like QCAV-4.

Despite concerns and controversies surrounding the commercial release of GM crops, OGTR’s risk assessment concluded that QCAV-4 poses negligible risks to both human health and the environment. The Regulator has not imposed specific measures for risk management.

The approval of QCAV-4 is expected to be a game-changer for the global banana industry, currently valued at US$20 billion, by providing a much-needed safety net against the destructive Panama disease.

“Our responsibility now is to ensure responsible cultivation and management practices to safeguard the long-term sustainability of this crucial industry,” Professor Smith emphasized.

In the face of this groundbreaking approval, GM labeling becomes mandatory for QCAV-4 bananas and any products derived from them, ensuring consumer awareness and transparency.

The commercial planting of QCAV-4 will be subject to certain restrictions in some Australian States and Territories for marketing reasons.

The expected completion of the transaction is in the first half of 2024, following regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions.

This approval comes after months of public engagement and consultation initiated by OGTR last year, where Queensland University of Technology invited comments on the proposed commercial release of GM banana plants.

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