|FROM THE GROUND UP|
Genetically Modified Crops
Much has happened since the February 2000 issue of From The
Ground Up provided an introduction to genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) and transgenic technology. There are exciting breakthroughs in
research and new genetically modified (GM) crops, but at the same time
public debate about GM crops and foods has intensified. Clearly, the
future of transgenic technology depends on consumer acceptance of its
products. There is a need for public education about GM crops and foods:
how the technology works, what it can do, what are the real benefits and
|Transgenic Plants for the Future|
Will the next generation of genetically modified crops improve public acceptance of biotechnology?
Critics of transgenic technology claim that genetically modified (GM) crops currently in commercial production only benefit producers and a few large agricultural corporations and offer nothing to the general public. While it can be argued that some changes in crop production associated with transgenics do benefit the consumer - reduced pesticide applications with Bt cotton, for example - it is true that the first GM crops to reach the market were not developed to provide direct benefits for consumers. New transgenics now in development, however, could change this dramatically, with crops being genetically modified for enhanced nutritional or other health benefits. Exciting current examples include golden rice, cavity-fighting apples, and antioxidant tomatoes, and edible vaccines in bananas.
Flavonols are powerful antioxidants with the ability to neutralize harmful tissue-damaging molecules circulating in the body. Some foods, such as onions and tea, are naturally rich in flavonols, and several current research projects involving GM crops aim to increase beneficial antioxidant levels in other food plants. Scientists at Unilever have inserted a petunia gene into tomatoes which increases flavonol production up to 78 times over the relatively low levels normally found in the fruits. Taste is not affected, and 65% of the flavonols are retained when the tomatoes are processed into paste. Researchers have coined the term “functional foods” for items such as this, where conventional breeding or transgenic technology have enhanced levels of compounds in plant or animal products with health benefits beyond basic nutritional requirements.
Another frequent criticism of transgenic technology is that GM crops have not resulted in increased food production, especially in developing countries. New transgenics now in development could help solve the problem of feeding a world where the human population keeps expanding but usable agricultural land does not. Among examples recently in the news are salt-tolerant tomatoes and iron-pumping rice.
Public concern about transgenic technology in the U.S. and international opposition to it abroad, especially in Europe, have impacted markets for GM crops grown in the U.S. The future of GM technology depends on consumer acceptance of its products. Will the potential benefits offered by the next generation of GM crops be sufficient to persuade a skeptical international public?