I harvested potatoes the other day. Each plant had two to three kilos of potatoes beautifully arranged just under the foliage. But if you believe this is natural, you are mistaken. Like all modern crops, they are genetic variants selected by our ancestors and improved by modern breeders. Breeding always involves changing genes. That this is genetic modification (GM) is generally overlooked. The combination of whole gene families by grafting gets even less attention.
What people usually mean when they talk about GM is specific genetic engineering (GE) of crops. Scientists prefer the term GE because it advertises the real innovation, that they know which genes they introduce and why.
Introduced in the 1990s, GE crops have become much more commercially available. There are currently ten different crops available in the US alone, including corn, soybeans, sugar beet and cotton. Yet ask ten people in the street what they think about GE crops you will find a lot of caution, some rejection, and no support. None of them are likely to have anything against traditional breeding or grafting. Neither will they object to injecting insulin, say, even though it has been purified from a GE micro-organism.
Herbicide-resistant crops also began appearing in the 1990s. Farmers traditionally controlled weeds using herbicides like paraquat that can only be sprayed before the crop has started growing. These are highly toxic, harming biodiversity and also animals and humans. Scientists engineered crops with built-in resistance to less toxic and more biodegradable herbicides. This has enabled farmers to switch to the likes of Roundup, which kills all weeds and can be sprayed on even once the crop is already growing. Another win-win?
Not quite. Both types of crops are grown in many parts of the world, but they are not embraced by consumers. Hardly anyone seems to know about the drawbacks of spraying Bt toxin or paraquat. Yet the typical criticism that herbicide-resistant crops are just a marketing strategy to promote the use of different herbicides seems to have stuck.
These examples highlight two key failures in the industry. The first is about marketing: from the start, these products have lacked appropriate advertising and consumer information.
The second failure relates to the disproportionate focus on crop protection: trying to improve resistance to things like pests, frost and draughts is both very difficult and will only benefit farmers' production costs. Only a small proportion of this is passed on to consumers.
Some true GM jewels have meanwhile failed to make an impact. Take golden rice, a GE rice that contains high levels of vitamin A. It could really make a difference to vitamin A deficiency, which leads toblindness and death in many parts of the developing world. This rice is one of the best examples of genetic engineering, achieving a trait that could take millennia to stumble upon through conventional breeding.
More recently scientists have succeeded in dramatically increasing protein content in potatoes and cassava. This is much simpler and cheaper than engineering resistance to insects and the like, and also promises to improve nutrition in many parts of the world. If the first GM crop had been golden rice or a high-protein potato, public perception of the new technology might have been very different.
When I think about the opportunity we have missed with GE foods, I think of Flavr Savr tomatoes. I would have loved to try one: sweet, juicy, beautifully red and yet crunchy, great for a salad with mozzarella, basil and olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. If only I could buy them in the supermarket.
But as one of the first GE products to be licensed, it was withdrawn in 1997. Why did it fail? Instead of putting any emphasis on the benefits to the consumer, much of it was turned into tomato puree, marketed as 10% cheaper to manufacture. Would you have been drawn by an advert offering such dazzling features? I guess not.
For more information see: https://theconversation.com/seeds-of-doubt-why-consumers-weigh-up-gm-produce-and-turn-it-down-50106
Jessica Kwok and Ronaldo Ichiyama, International Spinal Research Trust (Feb 2018), £94,450
Dave Lewis and Colleagues in South Africa, HEFCE Global Challenge Research (Jan 2018), £48,000
Sarah Calaghan, Ed White, John Colyer, Isuru Jayasinghe, BHF (Jan 2018), £128,308
Christine Foyer and Alison Baker, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £71,158
Alison Baker, Yun Yung Gong and Lindsay Stringer and ICRISAT India, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £27,000
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2017), £18,000
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000