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Genetically modified foods: A 30-year history of promise still unrealized

monsanto protest
REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Most portrayals of GM foods as somehow health-threatening are far overblown.

What a lot of work has been done, and how little genuine progress made, in the three decades since techniques for making genetically modified foods were first laid before the world.

The British journal Nature has devoted much of its May issue to a special report on the subject, aiming for even-handed coverage of what it calls "the messy middle ground."

That would be the territory ceded by both anti-Frankenfood fanatics, who see genomic tampering as reckless or immoral  or both, and the blithe proponents who still insist the benefits of engineered crops vastly outweigh their multiplying problems.

The middle ground has been my own natural landing place in not quite 20 years of following these issues as an engaged, though certainly nonexpert, journalist who finds all the angles interesting.

I care about food safety and quality, and think most portrayals of GM foods as somehow health-threatening are far overblown. I care about environmental protection, too, and think recent history has shown that GM-driven agriculture carries serious ecological costs. I care about alleviating hunger, too, while maintaining a skeptical view of whether the big food and agribusiness companies are really invested in that goal.

So the messiness of this middle ground is somewhat familiar to me, is what I'm saying, and I admire Nature's willingness to undertake this sweeping survey that will probably please no participants in these struggles — except perhaps those scientists who can remain invested only in the research, not its applications.

Unrealized potential

The introductory editorial sets the stage, and the tone, in this way:

It was 30 years ago this month that scientists first published the news that they could place functional foreign genes into plant cells. The feat promised to launch an exciting phase in biotechnology, in which desired traits and abilities could be coaxed into plants used for food, fibres and even fuel. Genetically modified (GM) crops promised to make life easier and nature’s bounty even more desirable. [But] things have not worked out that way.

Investors rushed first to gimmicky ideas like the Flavr Savr tomato, modified to remain firm after ripening, and to transgenic salmon with doubled growth rates. The Flavr Savr reached the marketplace and stalled; the supersalmon is still awaiting regulatory approval, which may or may not be granted shortly.

Then the energy shifted away from making new foods, possibly better foods, to merely re-engineering the industrial-scale production of commodity crops like corn and soybeans and cotton. GM varieties have taken over those sectors with demonstrated ability to raise yields and reduce pesticide inputs, at least temporarily, despite deep public mistrust and the steady creation of pesticide-resistant superweeds. And the pitched PR battle goes on:

People are positively swimming in information about GM technologies. Much of it is wrong — on both sides of the debate. But a lot of this incorrect information is sophisticated, backed by legitimate-sounding research and written with certitude. (With GM crops, a good gauge of a statement’s fallacy is the conviction with which it is delivered.).

More science, less commerce

In Nature's editorial view, "there is reason to stand up for the continued use and develop­ment of GM crops" as promising products of a technology that moved too quickly toward commercialization. Whether you agree or disagree may turn on your reaction to other portions of its report:

  • The 18-year-long campaign to bring transgenic salmon to American consumers may be nearing an end —the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's final public-comment period just closed, on April 26 —but at a staggering cost for a small return.

AquaBounty Technologies has nearly gone broke spending $60 million on this fast-growing fish which will, if approved, add perhaps 200,000 pounds of fillets and steaks annually to salmon sales that exceed 230,000 tons a year right now. Revenues might reach $1 million a year, which makes for a long payback period.

Retailers like Whole Foods have declared they won't handle AquaBounty's fish; the company is hoping to supply farming operations in Canada, China and South America. But even if it succeeds in getting the world's first GM animal cleared for public consumption, who will want to follow in those footsteps?

  • The "Roundup ready" crop varieties engineered by Monsanto have now been associated with emergence of at least 24 weed species resistant to glyphosate (aka Roundup) in 18 countries around the world. Most prominent in Nature's report: Palmer amaranth, long the bane of cotton producers, which in its Roundup-proof form has spread from one Georgia county  in 2011 to 76 counties today.

Despite the superweeds, Nature says "herbicide-resistant GM crops are less damaging to the environment than conventional crops grown at industrial scale," because use of herbicides other than glyphosate has fallen. However, some studies predict that GM-driven agriculture will cause U.S. herbicide use to double in the next dozen years.

  • Whether GM genes themselves are moving from engineered plants to wild species remains debatable, in Nature's view, but there appears to be strong evidence that this has happened to wild maize in Mexico.

 Samples from native plants contain foreign DNA segments of two types, one conferring  glyphosate resistance and another causing the plants to express their own bacterial insecticide, known as Bt. Further research is needed to settle the question, but that is not the kind of scientific inquiry that funders are competing to support.

Keep in mind that Nature's report was assembled with insistence on indisputable facts, a faith in scientific solutions generally and reaches a conclusion that development of GM foods should go forward, though along somewhat different pathways. To Nature, our best hope for realizing the potential of engineered foods lies in taking research and development out of corporate hands and returning it to scientists.

Genetic modification is a nascent technology for which development has moved very quickly to commercialization. That has forced most research into the for-profit sector. Without broader research programmes outside the seed industry, developments will continue to be profit-driven, limiting the chance for many of the advances that were promised 30 years ago — such as feeding the planet’s burgeoning population sustainably, reducing the environmental footprint of farming and delivering products that amaze and delight.

Transgenic technologies are by no means the only way to achieve these aims, but the speed and precision that they offer over traditional breeding techniques made them indispensable 30 years ago. They still are today.

I learned from Nature that work continues on genetically modified cassava, an important staple for the poor in tropical regions of the world, and that "Golden Rice" with GM-driven beta carotene enrichment may clear its last regulatory hurdles next year. But rather more excitement seems to surround the work on a new stone-free plum that makes for cheaper processing, and a non-browning apple that can be sold pre-sliced.

I would like to hope, with Nature's editors, that our first 30 years' experience with GM foods might lead us to redirect our efforts in more helpful and less harmful ways. But making that shift is a social problem, not a scientific one, and it's hard to see a new way forward from today's messy middle ground.

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